"Thief: Circle of Fate"
by The Oracle of Wayside

Chapter III

In the world there are those
That will listen to our teachings
And learn from them, and be wiser for it,
And there are those that will listen to our teachings
And twist them to serve their own will.

To become a Keeper is not an easy task,
Nor is it one for the dependent of spirit.
We must choose our acolytes carefully
For the knowledge we pass on to them
Is a most dangerous tool.

--Keeper Thesis Of Teaching

It looks like some things are finally coming into perspective. In the box that Beckwen gave to me, Airen found a Keeper’s ring. It wasn’t too much trouble tracking down some of the rings I’ve stolen from him in the past, and as it turns out, they’re the same size as the one from the box. And since it was hidden away in a false bottom, it must have been something precious to him. It also stands to reason that it was what he wanted me to have, considering that the other stuff that was with it all seems to be junk. Still, for the moment at least, I’ve decided to hang on to it all.

It should probably come as no surprise that I was visited by a Keeper on that day, as well. I know him by the name of Phineas, and he is someone that I would have no problems calling a friend under normal conditions, but after our little, falling out, I’ve tried to cut all ties to them, and I thought that they had done the same. He told me some interesting things about Beckwen, stuff that I had no trouble confirming. It seems the old man was in a bit of debt with a number of people, mainly the City Wardens, but also a number of banks. He’d taken out a number of loans at First City Bank and Trust that were either never paid back or were underpaid. Because of his status they decided to approve them, but as of late they’ve been trying to collect. The City Wardens were also trying to collect on all the little favors they’ve done for him; the bribes, the protection, and a seemingly endless list of assassinations. It seems the Old Man was the head of a criminal organization, rivaling that of the Wardens in power. They’re dangerous to cross, and that, together with the debts, would be more than enough reason for anyone to get lost. I still tend to think he passed on due to natural causes, but if he faked his own death, or was murdered by someone, I need to find out. If he’s alive, then I’ll get the answers I need from him.

So it appears my Keeper friend was right, after all. I do need their help. Tonight I’m going to pay a visit to one of their Libraries. Hopefully they’ll give me something useful to go on, and then I can end my association with them once-and-for-all. I just hope this isn’t a waste of my time…

A mist clung low to the ground as Tomas moved silently through the streets. The air about him was oppressive; it pressed in on him from all directions, its dampness saturating his clothes, matting down his hair, and making this already distasteful task even more unpleasant. There was also a weight to the mist, almost as if it wanted to keep him from moving another step, possibly to protect him, possibly to absorb him into itself. It didn’t matter, though. As little as he wanted to do this, nothing was going to stop him. The journey lasted almost an hour before he found himself standing where a gate should have been locked tight. Instead, it was open, allowing him easy access inside. Of course they knew I was coming he thought sourly. He told me they were expecting this. He entered into a hallway, decently lit every ten or so feet by electric lamps. No one was in sight as he moved down the passage, although behind some of the doors he could hear the sounds of muffled discussions, or of hundreds of quills scratching on parchment. Before he had moved in too far, the sound of chains clanking together behind him drew his attention, and as he looked, Tomas saw the gate closing, sealing him inside this place of lonely hallways, dark catacombs, and quiet libraries.

As he progressed farther into the complex, a person moved toward him from a branch to his left. Tomas was sure he could guess who it was.

“Brother Tomas, you have not honored us with your presence in some years. You are of course welcome to roam the grounds, but it would have been nice to have been informed of your arrival.”

“Wasn’t it you who said I would be coming to seek your help?”

“A formality of course. You of all people should know the order of things.” The Keeper called Phineas gestured with his left hand down the hall Tomas had already been traveling, bowing his head slightly, the way a serf would when meeting a king. “If you have nothing else you wish to see, than shall we get down to business?” Keeping his expression neutral at the use of mock courtesy, Tomas nodded in agreement. The two moved deeper into the compound, each footfall echoed and multiplied to the point that it sounded as if a small army was marching through the halls. Once in awhile Tomas caught a glimpse of a human form crossing in front of their path or a shadow moving from under a door, but never was there any noise that wasn’t clearly from the two of them. They passed a staircase down to a crypt, the steps so heavily worn from centuries of use that they were now smooth, making a perilous descent for any, even with all the torches burning bright. Some ways beyond this and on the opposite side of the hall was another set of stairs, leading up, to which Tomas and Phineas turned and ascended.

The second floor was, for all intents and purposes, nearly identical to the first. It was on this floor that Tomas spent most of his time when he was a Keeper, studying, learning, memorizing ancient books and passages that he could never recall truly believing. His own chambers were also here, in truth not far from where they currently stood. There were many people moving about here, most moving to or from the main library. It was there that the bulk of the Keeper’s knowledge was kept, diligently preserved and copied so that later generations could learn when the current copies deteriorated beyond handling. It was there that they were now headed, or more accurately, to a side room of the library. Most of the others that they passed paid them no attention, too preoccupied to allow any disturbance that would slow their task. There was an occasional quiet greeting, or the nod of a head here or there. One or two was of surprise at seeing such a long absent face. It seems that news doesn’t travel as fast around here as I thought. After a number of turns down hallways and a march that seemed to Tomas to last an eternity, they reached the library. Tomas had to admit that it was an overwhelming experience every time he entered this room. It was the single largest room he had ever been in, rising three mezzanines above him and descending four below. Uncounted volumes lined the walls and shelves, with Keepers moving about silently on all floors. The only sound other than that of their feet clicking against the tile was the ruffling of paper and quiet discussions in a language he had never learned.

After they crossed the room, or more accurately, moved around the mezzanine to the far side of it, they were forced to descend to the lowest level. The air here was heavy, and it made already wet clothes almost unbearable. Tomas felt as though he would be smothered before he even reached his final destination, and silently a part of him prayed that it would come to pass. The oldest of all the scrolls and books, the most valuable of all the teachings, were kept here. They were, of course, rarely handled; they were so fragile that even a slight breeze would likely make them disintegrate into dust. Instead they were kept rolled in stacks, in vaults or on shelves that would provide the best climate for preservation, or else they were on permanent display in glass cases, which would offer-up the valuable text without exposing it to the air.

When they reached the office, it was as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders, and, in a sense, it was true. Soon he would learn about Beckwen, about his debts and connections, his relations with the Keepers, and everything else that had led him to this point. Most importantly, though, was the comfort that the sooner he unraveled this mystery, the sooner he would be able to sever all ties to the Keepers, once and for all. Maybe he would even retire, as he had told Airen. At the moment though, his thoughts were focused, his purpose singular: to learn the mystery of Beckwen’s box. Phineas opened the door, and as he did so, the light from the inner sanctum spilled out into the corridor, illuminating the valuable teachings as though the Builder himself had chosen them as his words. Inside the room there was little to hint at the personality of the 34th Master Keeper; indeed, there was little in the room at all aside from that which pertained to his position. There were a few pieces of art hanging on the walls, but for the most part the office of Keeper Aldon was lined with book-filled shelves and artifacts of a more historic nature. Tomas had never been in the company of Aldon, not in his office anyway, and as he neared the aging man, Tomas felt a growing wonderment. It was not just he, though, for he could see the same feelings show in every movement of his guide. He knew, of course, what to expect from this old man, for he had had more than his fair-share of encounters with him since leaving the Keepers.

“Tomas,” came a voice that was still remarkably young for a man that was nearing his seventieth year of life. “You knew that we would welcome you, I’m sure.” His head tilted up to look at Tomas, whom he had not seen for several years. The hood of his gray cloak hid, for the most part, the man’s silvery hair, although in some places it was still visible when it shone in the light. His face was hidden almost completely in shadow, with only a bit of skin visible near his left jaw. For such an ancient body, there were remarkably few wrinkles. The only clearly discernable feature of Aldon was his eyes, reflecting all light like that of the finest star-stone, and taking in every bit of movement, almost exactly like a hawk. “Why have you come back to us this day?”

It took considerable willpower to keep from laughing outright; however, nothing could hide the movement of his shoulders. Tomas had to hand it to the old man, he did sound sincere. “You don’t know? Maybe I should just leave right now then.”

“He wishes to learn of Brother Beckwen,” interrupted Phineas. At that both Tomas and Aldon turned their heads. Tomas had practically forgotten his presence after the conversation began. “I am sorry that I mislead you.” He turned and returned Tomas’ gaze. “Both of you.”

Aldon’s eyes bore deep into the younger man, and then, as if he had forgotten Tomas, turned back, his expression saddened. “I am afraid that your trip was a waste, Brother Tomas. I cannot help you. I was told that you wished to return to the order.”

Tomas sneered, and turned to leave. “What a joke! What would cause me to do that?” He began to walk to the door when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He tried to shake it off, but the grip was remarkably strong.

“Tomas, please wait a moment.” Phineas walked to Aldon’s desk while Tomas turned on his heels to watch. He had been deceived, but obviously this younger man, who had always been headstrong in their youth, had some reason to trick him to come here. “Keeper Aldon, this is an opportunity.”

The old Master Keeper rested his chin on his knuckles. “Oh? How do you mean?”

Phineas turned quickly to look at Tomas. “There are artifacts that we wish to acquire, and there are none more skilled than Tomas who could get them for us. I believe that we should have him acquire them, in exchange for the information he seeks.”

They wanted him to steal something for them. But why? All the skills he used for his work he received as a Keeper. Surely they could get these, items, without his help.

“No. Even if I were to agree, that information is not for me to give.”

“The Master Keeper can’t give me information?” The others turned to look. “You are the only Keeper who can give me any information I ask for.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Besides, why should I, when any of you could get them just as easily?”

Aldon sat for a few moments in silence, a troubled look on his face. When he finally opened his mouth to speak, the conflict inside him was still apparent. “I suppose, if you are willing, Tomas, to run some errands for us, I would be willing to give you the information you want.”

“And what is it you want me to get?”

“Do you accept?”

It was obvious to Tomas that Aldon knew of Phineas’ actions all along. It was the only explanation for why he would change his mind so quickly. Why he would do this was still a mystery to Tomas, but he thought he knew the answer. Keepers aren’t immortal. They can still be captured, but if it’s a thief that’s caught then they’ll still be safe. However, he was still uncertain. His reply, while slow to come, was that of a man accepting his fate. “Yes.” Out of the corner of his eye, Tomas could see a slight smile materialize on Phineas’ face.

Aldon’s head nodded slowly, almost impercievably, when he heard the reply. “There are several items we will request of you. The first, possibly the most difficult to obtain, lies somewhere in the Bonehoard. As best as we can determine, it is in, or near, the Halls of Echoing Repose. Understand that we will not give you any of the information until you have recovered all the relics for us. Do you still accept?”

This time, Tomas did not hesitate. When the words left his lips, they were slow, determined, and above all, they were the truth. There was no doubt left in Tomas’ mind about what he must do. “Absolutely.”

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