Ratzer, the man who trained me, told me I had to be a thief because I was too ugly to be a whore. I told him that he should learn respect, and later, when I’d learned enough about thievery and knife work from him, I taught him some respect by taking his right eye in an even match. He was dead now, from some other woman’s lessons I’ll warrant.
I always thought about Ratzer when I was on the job. What would he do? How would he lay it out? Would he go alone or work a team. But in this case, he’d have never taken the job. “Never for the unders. Never owe a demon.”
Still, Gilga-Yar had been a fair patron. He’d softened by the time he’d taken on my contract; gone were the fealty maimings and game-playing. He taught me the bits of the Art that applied to my chosen profession, and I, in turn, rendered the services only my chosen profession could. Namely, I stole for him every now and again, each job putting me closer to my contract expiring and a life of free agency.
The messenger demon in my pocket farted and giggled, the noise of it loud in the otherwise silent forest. I swatted at it. “Quiet.”
I felt its tiny teeth snapping at my fingers. “Master requires messenger returned in fine tip-top shape.”
“Mistress requires silence,” I said, swatting at the pocket hard enough to get a yelp. “And mistress wonders what master wants from this hovel?”
The cabin lay in a forested gully below us, smoke leaking from its solitary chimney. It was the only smoke on the horizon after days of crossing the Eldenwood on foot, and it was hard to imagine anything of value in this quaint log structure far removed from civilization.
“Master wants what master wants,” the demon said. “Master says this may be your last job. It may. It may. It may.”
He’d said that before. I wasn’t going to believe it this time either.
When I spoke it was more for my benefit than my obnoxious companion. “What could he possibly want from here?”
The demon in my pocket said nothing. I lay still and watched the cabin below, hidden from view by the woodling cloak I’d spent a years’ take purchasing for this trip. Under the best conditions the Eldenwood was dangerous, and we were on the edge of howler season.
After another hour, the door opened and a shirtless old man dressed in buckskin trousers stepped onto the porch to gather an armful of firewood. Evening was coming, and the autumn air was crisp. Even at this distance, I saw what I had come for. It was bright on his neck, and though I had no idea what exactly it was, it reeked and shimmered with power that was palpable from where I watched. And not any power I recognized. This was something older even than the Art.
“He wants the amulet,” I said.
The demon snickered. “Want, want, want.”
I sighed and stood, brushing the leaves from me. “Very well. Let’s go fetch it.”
Suddenly, the demon was tooth and claw, tearing at my pocket in its mad scramble to leave. “Master says I go now.”
I was alone before I could protest. With the slightest cough, the air around me flooded with the odor of sulfur as the tiny messenger vanished. “Fantastic,” I said.
I walked down the side of the gully, aware of the knives at my hips and the hands that craved them. Ratzer would never have taken this job. But if he had, he’d have seen the old man and sent in his young apprentice to take what needed taking while he watched and waited.
I approached the cabin and knocked on its door.
The old man didn’t come to the door on my first knock. Or my second. Or my seventh.
I raised my voice. “I know you’re in there. I’m lost and could use some help.”
Silence met my voice at first. Then, I heard the clearing of a voice. “No one lost in the Eldenwood gets this far. Who sent you?”
“No one sent me,” I lied. Then, I opted for a bit of truth. “But you’re right. I’m not lost. I came for you.”
I heard a sigh, then heard the turning of the bolt in its lock. The door opened and the man stood before me now. Up close, he was older than I realized, his hair thin and white as it fell over his shoulders. His chest was narrow beneath muscular shoulders, and hanging in the center of a gay thatch of hair, the crystalline medallion guttered and smoldered with its power. One of the first tricks Gilga-Yar had taught me was how to smell the Art and its distant cousins. This was something rarer, and the possibilities frightened me.
The old man watched, his sharp blue eyes narrow at the sight of me. It seemed he was waiting for something, and since the only thing that truly made me uncomfortable were awkward and stretched out silences, I spoke into it. “I am Shayna Westbrook. Of the Clancy Westbrook Run.”
He continued to wait, his eyes widening. I mistook it as familiarity with my name and smiled “You know me then?”
The old man shook his head slowly and leaned forward, sniffing at me with a raised eyebrow. “But you know me or surely you wouldn’t have come so far to find me. Who told you how to find me?” He sighed again, then pushed past me with a deliberate stride. “I require you to tell me. And to follow.”
He said it with resignation, and I had no interest in telling him that a second-rate demon had sent me here without knowing what I was to steal and whom I was to steal it from. But I fell in behind him as he moved off the porch and around back toward the shed.
He opened it and withdrew a shovel and a knife. “It doesn’t matter. Take these.”
I thought about hitting him and taking what Gilga-Yar was after. But this old man had me curious, and my patron’s lack of forthrightness with me made me want all the more to know what was going on. So I took the shovel and the knife. “What am I doing with these?”
He regarded me with an intensity that made me uncomfortable. “First,” he said, “you’ll walk north away from the house until you find the other graves. Then, you’ll dig a grave. And after, if you truly love me and wish to serve me, you will climb into the grave and cut your throat.”
I handed them back to him. “I don’t think so.”
He didn’t take them. Instead, he staggered back, and for a moment I thought he might drop to the ground. “It’s you,” he said. His face flushed. “Finally, it’s you.”
Now it was my turn to step back. “Yes,” I said. “It’s me.” I felt something stirring in my stomach and didn’t like it at all. “Who are you?”
His eyes glistened with tears of what seemed like gratitude or wonder. “Who am I?” He chuckled. “Surely you know. I am Ansylus of Erok.”
In that moment I knew I’d been profoundly buggered by a god. Because even though it was impossible, it wasn’t: Ansylus of Erok, Ansylus the Conqueror, Ansylus the Enslaver. It had taken half the League of Wizards to bring him down two thousand years ago. It had brought about the treaty with the demons and restored the Art to them.
So this, I thought, is where they’d hidden him.
My eyes went back to the crystalline amulet around his neck. Because of what he wore and the things people still whispered about it, though it was long thought lost. “The Heart of Eylon,” I whispered.
“Aye,” Ansylus said. “And you are here to free me of it at long last.”
Buggered by a god. Buggered by Eylon himself, the god of love and loyalty. A tiny bit of divine heart lay buried beneath the crystal that focused it outward, bending those who beheld it to adore with abandon and obey to the utmost zig and zag.
Only it didn’t seem to work on me. And because of that, and because Ansylus the Enslaver now wept tears of joy before me, I was thinking Ratzer had been right all along about working for the unders.
Now, back in the cabin, with mugs of something he’d distilled from potatoes warming our hands and our stomachs, Ansylus wept tears of remorse and regret.
“It’s true what they say about complete power spawning utter evil,” he said, “and I’ve had millennia to ponder my sins. And the sins my sins begat.”
We’d been talking now for a few hours while drinking and sitting by his fire. Mostly, I listened, though early on I’d told him about Gilga-Yar. I saw no good reason not to.
And in exchange, he’d told his tale. Millennia of introspection after a decade of world domination. The blood of hundreds of thousands upon his hands, and a war with Heaven that would’ve brought down the world if the demons had not been bargained with by the League. I felt a strange kinship with him – probably because of the spirits we were drinking – as he spoke. He described centuries of loneliness followed by a vast stretch of contentment, recognizing the imperative of his banishment. At first, he’d used the Heart to send those who found him away, bidding them to be silent. But with distance, eventually those silences turned to whispers of adoration. And those whispers turned into pilgrims on his porch.
And so, the small cemetery north of his cabin. “I have them do half the work. I do the other half and try to convince myself it’s saving the world.”
“It probably is saving the world,” I told him. And the way I slurred the words told me that somehow, I’d managed to get myself drunk with this old tyrant instead of robbing him and getting out from under Gilga-Yar’s contract once and for all.
He shrugged and nodded toward the pan on the stove. “More?”
I shook my head. “I’ve had plenty, old man. Too much even.”
He smiled a drunken smile. “This is the first real conversation I’ve had since the demons put me here. My first with a human since I put this on.” He touched the crystal, and I heard it hum beneath his fingers. He laughed. “And the first woman I’ve spoken to who hasn’t fallen madly in love with me and been willing to follow my slightest suggestion.”
I snorted. “It’s early yet.”
His laugh became a bellow as he stood and clapped me on the shoulder. “Now that would be something,” he said. “But I think it’s time for you to sleep,” he said. “Then tomorrow, you can kill me.”
I have no idea why I didn’t ask. Maybe some part of me knew. Or maybe I was just really drunk and on the job, which was something, oddly enough, that Ratzer would approve of. “Sometimes it’s just good for the soul,” he’d say in his own slurred voice. “Long as you don’t mind the job going to hell.”
And in this case, I actually did mind the job going to hell. To Gilga-Yar, specifically, and I think that’s why I drank with the old man and took my time deciding what to do.
So I didn’t ask at all about killing him. Instead, I let him guide me to his narrow bed and let him pull my boots and tuck me in like the father I never had. And I fell asleep listening to him wash our drinking mugs.
“I’ll kill you in the morning,” I mumbled into the drool I’d made on his pillow.
He was staring at me when I woke up, and I sat up quickly, reaching for knives I wasn’t wearing.
“Good morning,” he said.
My head ached, and I rubbed it with one hand while using the other to accept the cup of cold water he offered me. “Mine’s hurting, too,” he said. Then he stood from the chair he’d straddled while waiting for me to awake.
I sipped the water, surprised at how terrible my mouth tasted after last night. Then I winced, calling up the memory of it. I drank from time to time but never on the job. I looked at the old man, at Ansylus. Never with the job. “So I’m killing you today?”
Ansylus smiled. “Yes. I dug my grave this morning. With the others. I thought it would be fitting.”
I took another drink of the water. “And why am I doing this exactly?”
“Because you can. You’re immune to it. Just like I was. So you kill me just like I killed the Prophetess Esthra Shau, and the Heart of Eylon then falls to you. You can give it to your master. It won’t serve or command his kind, but surely he knows that already.”
“Then what does he want with it?” I wondered aloud.
His smile faded. “That’s a problem for you to solve before you hand it over, I’ll wager.”
My own eyes narrowed. “Or a problem I should avoid shouldering in the first place.”
His lower lip quivered and he said nothing, though his eyes filled with anguish and tears. Finally, he spoke. “You could avoid it. Yes.”
“And you would wait until someone else came along who was immune.” Even as I said the words, I thought about the two thousand years that had passed while he waited here for me.
He bowed his head. “Yes. And if I must, I’ll bear it longer. My sins are my sins, and Eylon’s heart is my sin to bear until someone slays me and takes it from me.”
Buggered by gods indeed.
So after breakfast, we walked to the grave that he had dug and he knelt at the foot of it. I closed my eyes and pushed my knife into his heart, from behind, angling the blade down as I slid it into his trembling shoulder blade.
“Fare you well, Ansylus of Erok,” I whispered as he tipped, laughing, into his grave.
“So you are human,” the little girl said.
I looked up from the grave. “I am.”
The forest had changed around me, and then she appeared in the way that people appear in dreams, suddenly and without context, as my mind reeled to figure out her place.
“So are you going to take it? Are you going to put it on?” She squatted, brushing the grave’s dirt from the unfamiliar fabric of her dress.
I shook my head. “No. I’m not sure what I’ll do with it.” I met her eyes. “But I’ll not put it on.”
She smiled. “Good.”
And then she was gone, and the forest became something recognizable to me again. For a moment, I considered just leaving it, burying it beneath the dirt on the body of the man who had last commanded it. But even as I thought it, I thought of others coming after me, finding the cabin, finding the graves. Digging them up, one year or a thousand years from now, to find it waiting.
And to find a world waiting beyond the far edges of the Eldenwood.
I sighed, dropped into the grave, pulled the amulet from him, and tucked it into my pocket. Then, I covered his grave and returned to his cabin.
I stayed the night there, drinking more of his potato spirits until sleep insisted and I acquiesced. In the morning, I used his stocks to re-supply and then set out for home.
They trapped me when I exited the forest. They were silent and masked, but their hands bore the markings of the League and I knew better than to resist them, despite who I worked for. The demons had fed the League wizards Art for centuries now but the wizards still held dominion, and even Gilga-Yar had a policy of not crossing them. “Tell them who you serve, and if they still require it, give it to them.” Whatever it was, ever in the past that had been his advice.
“You’re Gilga-Yar’s pet, I’ll wager,” the larger of the men said.
“Or he’s mine,” I said. After weeks traversing the Eldenwood, I was hoping they’d take me into custody. Hot food. Hot water. Warm bed.
“And you have the Heart then?”
I blinked. This was a change. “I do.”
He nodded to the others. “Bring her.”
The transition from running to horseback jarred my bones, but I suffered it, longing for the hospitality of a prisoner of the League. Gilga-Yar had friends among the wizards, favors I’d helped him perform over the years, so there was no doubt in my mind that I would be free eventually, the fruit of my labor still snug in my pocket.
The wizard’s camp lay nestled in the hills that marked the southernmost boundary of the wood and the beginning of the Emperor’s Way. It spread out, a kaleidoscope of tents and wagons, with the wizard’s tent the largest and leaking purple smoke from its top.
The Leaguesmen escorted me to that tent, relieving me of my knives before pushing me gently through silk curtains too flimsy for the autumn cold. Warm air met me and I met my first wizard face to face. His skin had gone pale and his hair a thin silver from a lifetime of using the Art, his eyes rheumy but sparking with intelligence.
When he spoke, his voice was as silver as his hair. “You are Shayna Westbrook. Of the Clancy Westbrook Run. Thiefmaiden of Gilga-Yar.”
I thought he would introduce himself, invite me to sit. He did not. He lay back in his cushions and regarded me carefully while sipping at a pipe made of white bone.
I shifted uncomfortably beneath his gaze.
“The League is aware of your recent acquisition. Its delivery cannot be permitted.”
I reached into my pocket. “If you know I’m Gilga-Yar’s thief, then you also know I have instructions to yield to the League in all of my business dealings for him.” I withdrew the amulet. “Who should I give it to?”
His eyes narrowed with rage, but none of it touched his voice. “Put the abominable thing away. It is yours to bear now. You who were so short-sighted to have taken it in the first place.”
I put it away. “Has Gilga-Yar been summoned?”
“Gilga-Yar,” he said in a measured tone, “has been executed by his own kind as per the ordinances of the treaty with respect to treason.”
I felt my legs go weak, and it surprised me.
He continued. “The sentence was carried out as soon as it was determined that you had taken the Heart.”
Something cold flooded my stomach. “Then Gilga-Yar is dead?”
The wizard nodded. “And you are returning to the Eldenwood with what you stole.”
I felt it whispering now in my pocket. It was a quiet voice, a still voice. A sure voice. Wear me, and the League will do your bidding. Wear me now, and take me off later. But wear me.
Could I? Put it on and take it off? I knew better. If that were the case, Ansylus would’ve laid aside his burden long ago. Once I wore it, no matter the power I wielded and how I did so, that Heart of Eylon would be mine until someone immune to it, someone like me, came and took it.
“I will not,” I said aloud. The wizard blinked, thinking I to him. He didn’t realize I was talking to that bit of a god in my pocket that had buggered me.
But in the wizard’s slow blink, the tent fell away and I stood in the forest once again. The little girl smiled. “I’m glad,” she said.
The wrongness of the forest raised the hair on my arms. Wrong not in a bad way but in a way that evoked fear and trembling nonetheless. The lines and light of it were...other than. “Who are you? Where did the wizard go? Where are we?”
“I am Taemyl. The wizard was never here. You are among the Trees of Pantheon.”
Orphaned thieves get little in the way of formal schooling, but I knew of Taemyl. And Pantheon. “You are Eylon’s daughter.” I looked around. The wood was quiet around us, though I suspected other eyes upon us, other ears to catch our words.
She nodded. “I am.”
“And you want your father’s heart?”
She nodded again. “I do. It was never meant for your kind.”
Your kind. Looking at her, it was easy to forget she wasn’t what than she seemed. But the more I studied this little girl, the less I trusted her. It was the eyes. They were too old and held no humanity within them. Still, it was her father’s heart, and I did not want it for my own. I found myself more and more wishing I’d listened to Ratzer about the unders.
I reached into my pocket and withdrew the necklace and its crystal amulet. I held it toward her and waited for her uplifted, empty hand to slide beneath mine. As it did, our eyes met and I shuddered.
Then I released the Heart of Eylon and felt the forest twist itself back into the Eldenwood I stood in, Ansyslus’s open grave still before me.
“Didn’t I do this already?” No one answered my rhetorical question. So I lifted the shovel once again to finish burying my dead, cursing the Pantheon and everyone in it as I did so.
“And so,” Gilga-Yar said in a low voice, “you gave it to her?”
His minion had re-appeared when I reached the edge of the Eldenwood for what, to me, seemed my second return trip. And for only the third time in fifteen years under contract, the Grand Old Demon brought me over to his plane to stand in in his sweltering office beneath the flames of Raya’s Consuming Veil. He sat behind his desk and avoided eye contact with me.
“Yes,” I answered. “I did. I believed you were dead and that the League intended banishment for me.”
He chuckled. “The gods cannot be trusted to deal plainly.”
Nor could the demons, I thought but did not say. Instead, I waited, my stomach churning from the heat and the heaviness of this dark, twisted place.
“Still, you could have put it on,” he said.
Now I met his eyes. “Is that what you intended with it?”
He smiled but didn’t answer. Instead, he repeated himself and matched the intensity of my level gaze. “You could have put it on.”
“No,” I said. “I could not.”
“Yes,” he said. “I see.” He started rummaging through the papers on his desk, and it was something about the way he did it that betrayed him. He found an old document and held it up. “Your contract,” he said. “I’ve decided to release you from it.”
“But I returned to you empty-handed.”
And the last time Gilga-Yar ever met my eyes, I realized that he’d intended it to be that way from the start. I didn’t know what price he’d exacted from the Pantheon, but for reasons of his own, he’d removed something dangerous from the world and curried favor with the old powers. “Yes,” he said. Then he smiled, his teeth sharp and glistening. “You have served me well.”
With a flick of his wrist, his office and its oppressive heat fell away as I found myself standing in the market of Pan Shao Crossing near the Danubii border. There was a pouch in my belt that I hadn’t seen before. I took it, opened it, and poured a handful of the diamonds into my hand.
He had served me well too, and, blessing him, I went first for the money-changer and then for the tavern.
I wanted the potato spirits, but the very idea of it was foreign in this forsaken corner of the world. So instead, I settled for fermented samaberry juice served as cold as the cellars in this place could make it, which wasn’t cold at all. I stood at the bar while I drank, and every part of me noticed the young man when he sidled up beside me.
He was beautiful, and my heart raced to look at him. His hair was golden and his eyes were bright and blue like skies after a desert storm. Even his smell caused my breath to catch, and when he smiled at me, I felt my hands shaking as they gripped at the edge of the bar.
“Thank you,” he said, “for giving me back my heart.”
The little girl was waiting for him by the door, and she waved to me and smiled as he bent to kiss me upon the forehead.
As he walked out into the desert sun, I waved back and wondered what I’d unleashed upon the world by bringing him back into it. And another part wondered whether or not it was entirely bad. Regardless, I hoped my life could be finished now with the likes gods and demons.
“To free agency,” I said to the barmaid who’d caught my eye earlier. She caught it even moreso now that my body was flushed and tingling from the love god’s presence. And she’d felt the effects of Eylon’s charms as well, I’d wager from the wideness in her eyes and the way her nostrils flared.
She smiled at me. “To free agency,” she said.