"Thief: In Shambles"
by Matt Elliott (AKA Jayle)
The Keepers had found me, taught me, and nurtured me to their standards. They had grand designs of me being the next "chosen one." I was to be of the highest order. Too bad the Keepers screwed things all up with their secrets…
Chapter 1: the Acquisition
I was alone and hungry on the streets. The cold wind biting on my face. I made do with what I could. Years of being and orphan had trained me to be quick and alert, despite my condition. I was wandering the market one day, in the hopes that some fool would reveal their coin pouch. Being an urchin most of my life, I had to learn something, and picking pockets was what I had capitalized on.
There were so many potential victims. A young upstart noble, Bafford, I think, was within arms reach but rumors of his dungeons and bodyguards kept me away. Several servants of the rich man Ramirez were there, I could tell because of the crests upon their uniforms. No, they weren’t likely to be carrying much because for all his riches, Ramirez was a stingy man.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man cloaked in black. The rest of the market didn’t seem to notice him for some reason. He didn’t look too threatening and his stance projected regality. What an easy target, his money pouch, riding on his hip outside his cloak! His slow, careful movements made it easy for me to catch up with him. All I have to do is reach out and grab the pouch.
" What do you think you are doing, Boy?"
" I’m sorry, sir. I cold and hungry. I meant no harm."
" It is an impressive task to see a Keeper, especially one who does not wish to be seen. There may be potential for you boy. Come with me and we shall see what can be done for you."
"Will I get a family?"
"I… yes. Tell me boy, what is your name?"
What a fascinating place the Keeper stronghold was. It was a palace compared to how I had been living my life. The floors were richly carpeted and the walls were heavily patterned in marble and quartz. The walled yards were a playground with ropes to climb and objects to hurdle. The Keepers gave me a room to live in, and some new clothes. The black cloak, which all the other Keepers wore, was soon to be mine as well. I enjoyed the companionship of the other, younger novices. The Elder Keepers seldom said much to me except for when I was in training.
The courtyards were used as training grounds. One day, Kale (another novice) and I must have run the training gauntlet at least a dozen times. I don’t know why, but the Keepers were rigorously training us for some reason.
Sometimes, I would lay awake at night, in my bed, and think about how much my life had changed. The cold, lonely nights were replaced with good times and warm beds. I no longer had to steal to find my food. There was little time for relaxation, except in the evening. Kale and I would play hide and seek in the Keeper Manor. Our newly acquired talents let us hide in the shadows and in the rafters. We would often try to ambush each other from the shadows. The Elders frowned on this, saying it was a waste of time and an inappropriate use of our skills. We ignored our masters, for it was the first time that either of us had someone to call a friend.
Late one evening, just as I was preparing to go to bed, I heard a loud moaning coming from deep within the walls of the manor. It was beastly and sounded like none I had ever heard before. Kale burst into the room, sweat running down his face and breathing heavily.
"I just ran here from my room. The Elders are demanding that everyone meet in the main hall. They said something about an invasion!"
" Alright, let’s go. Do you know who is invading?"
" I’m not sure, but I bet those moans are the reason."
We rushed to the main hall, black cloaks on our backs. The main passages were blocked, caved in by someone or something. We had to find another way around.
The moaning grew louder and more frequent. The pass through the garden seemed the quickest way to get to the main hall. As we exited the dorm quarters, we stopped, shocked at what we saw. The Bailey walls had been knocked over and men were slowly moving through them. The moans were terrible, like the attackers weren’t really men at all. As quick as we could, Kale and I ducked into the shadows and watched. The inhuman creatures shambled around in the courtyard. Jason, one of the younger Keepers, burst from the shadows and nailed one of the intruders with a deafening back stab. The creature slumped to the floor and Jason landed lightly on his feet and took off sprinting for another shadow. No sooner than Jason had hidden himself again, the monster stood back up.
" Calm down kids, we need to get you two to the Main Hall."
It was amazing how Jason had managed to come up behind us without us knowing. He truly was a master of the Keeper arts. Our screams had alerted the creatures in the courtyard.
" Boys, you need to climb up to the top of the training battlements. You should be safe there for a while. I will see what I can do to hold back the invaders. I promise I will be back for you."
And with that, Jason glided into the shadows. The numbers of the monsters were growing steadily. What few Keepers that were out defending the manor were slowly losing ground. Marcel and Jayle, two more of the Keeper elite, fell thanks to the onslaught of these monsters. Abram, Palace, and Locke were working hard, luring the creature into the training moat, but the numbers were so great and the moat was filling with corpses too fast. They would soon be killed. We turned to head for the battlements but were cut off by one of the monsters. It looked dead. It skin was rotting but it was still alive? The stench was awful. It slowly advanced towards us. We had to defend ourselves. As part of our training, we learned basic melee strategies. Kale and I split and circled the beast. We drew out dirks and crossed the creature. Two arching slashes ran across the chest and back of the monster. We grouped back up to plan another assault. Just as we were about to strike, the beast halved and slumped to the ground. Behind it stood the battle weary, kneeling form of Jason.
" That was a zombie alright. No time to examine it. Come, we must retreat to the hall. Word is spreading that the Elders are going to release a holy light spell to stop the invasion. Those it doesn’t kill will be easy pickings even for novices. Keep you dirks ready, we may have to fight our way to the hall."
We entered our home through the attic balcony. From there it was all down hill. Jason told us that if we were to be trapped somewhere, it was better to be trapped on the high ground. The hall was still all the way across the Manor. We kept as fast a pace as possible, considering our troupe consisted of two novices and one injured Keeper. We stuck to the shadows, according to our training. Jason had his bow and a few noisemakers with him. With an elegant motion, he drew back and fired all three into the courtyard through a broken window.
" That should draw most of the zombies away. Even though we may have an easier time getting to the main hall now, don’t be careless. Some Haunts might have come with the rest and they are even more dangerous than I am."
" I hope you all took this as a lesson. Our foes are strong indeed and will not hesitate to destroy you. We have lost many and our compound was nearly exposed! That was an unfortunate accident that cannot be allowed to happen again!"
Tobias, the eldest Keeper, slammed his tome down upon his desk and withdrew menacingly into the meager shadows of the well-lit hall. We could minor explosions outside and the moaning of the undead behemoths outside. We were shaken by our journey to the hall. Shortly after we had accessed the interior training grounds, the doors were thrown open as, what Jason described as a Haunt, charged us. Its sword was flailing wildly and its eyes were burning with hatred. The worst part was its unworldly cackling. "Nothing but flames, nothing but flames" over and over in such a high pitched screeching voice that made even Jason shiver. Jason fought the hardest and fastest I had ever seen anyone fight. He slipped from shadow to shadow like nothing. First striking from the ground and then disappearing only to strike from the ceiling upon his second run.
Jason was ailing from the battle and was slowly losing ground. He had stashed us out of the way as soon as the door broke open. I couldn’t watch the fight any longer. Out of anger and fear, a leapt from my hiding place and attacked the haunt. There was a clang, a parry, and then silence. I opened my eyes to see the motionless body of the haunt upon my feet, minus the head.
Kale quickly rushed to Jason’s aid as I collected myself. With the training ground doors off their hinges, it was only a matter of time before the zombies reached the interior. With that thought in mind, we moved faster than before, hoping to reach sanctuary before the light was unleashed. We reached to upper port just as the final words were being said. The windows filled with light and the ground burst from within. There were cries on agony coming from outside, some of which were those of our comrades in arms.
Once Tobias finished his tirade about our lack of preparation, he called Jason to his side and left the room to his chambers of to the side. I never did find out what Tobias had to say to Jason…
"You were a fool, Jason! What possessed you to risk your life for those incompetent fledglings? You are worth much more to us than a hundred to those novices will ever be!"
" You’re wrong, Tobias. I can tell that both youths, Garrett and Kale, will be excellent Keepers and I hope one day, they become talented enough to surpass even your abilities. You are getting old! You can’t lead a house, let alone a silent army."
" We fostered you, Jason. We gave you a reason to be and gave you a family. This is how you would treat you’re benefactors? By disregarding your worth for the lives of insignificant children! You must see that!"
"How is position my novices any different from the one I was in? I saw great potential in both of them this night. They stood there own against a zombie, without special tools or swords, even! The only had their novice dirks, which I might add, you allow them to only have dirks. They might have been able to put down the zombie they were fighting had I not intervened! And Garrett, I was both pleased and relieved. I ended up fighting a Haunt and was not doing so well. The shadow strikes were not nearly effective against it. It knocked me down briefly and was about to finish me when Garret surprised it and lopped off its head! Now after hearing that, do not preach to me about my worth to you and the novices worth to you because those novices saved my life tonight!"
"Very well, Jason. Keep your pet novices but be wary not to bite the hand that feeds you or else it might just bite back!"
"Threats do not scare me, old man…"
With that, Jason turned and walked through out into the hall, despite Tobias’ shouts of anger and malcontent. He never looked back. He just walked away.
The next morning, during our morning meal, Tobias announced that Jason was to be proclaimed the Rogue. According to the books, the person deemed the Rogue could not be acknowledged by any of the Keepers, even his or her novices. I never knew why Tobias did that to Jason. Jason was the bravest person I had ever known. Tobias set the punishment for three fortnights.
After the meal, just before our training was to begin, Kale and I stopped Jason in the hall. He halted briefly and then continued on his way, not saying a word but simply gesturing as to say, "Leave me alone, I’m not worthy of novices."
Kale and I even skipped our training to harass Jason, trying to get him to speak to us. Finally, after what seemed like hours he spoke.
"You two need to stop pestering me. I am the Rogue. Neither of you is allowed to acknowledge me. Pretend as if I don’t exist."
" We can’t do that," I piped in, "You saved our lives last night. We just want to know what you and Tobias talked about last night."
"Right," chimed in Kale, "If it was about us, we should know."
Hesitantly, Jason spoke again. "Very well. If you two insist on being pains about the whole thing. Tobias thought that I should have been more effective against the zombies last night. That is why he branded me."
He was lying through his teeth, but I choose not to pursue it because I knew he was upset for some reason.
"Here’s the deal, kids. If you wish to continue to talk to me for the next three fortnights, do so only at night or during training. When I’m training you, we are allowed to talk, or else how can you learn? Never talk to or even acknowledge me when the others are around. If you do, we both shall be ejected from the order and possibly killed."
As he finished that sentence, Jason took a distracted glance out the window. Then, he just stopped. His breath held in place in his lungs.
"What’s wrong? What are you looking at?" asked Kale.
"It’s not what I’m looking at that is bothering me," Jason said, "but what I’m not looking at…"
His words trailed off as he stepped back from the window so we could look. To our shock, the garden, the training yard, and the bailey walls were all missing the corpses of the zombies and were all in perfect condition.
The continued insistence of the other Elders forced me to permit the novices to stay on the grounds and be trained. All novices are trouble and should be viewed as such yet the others have yet to see the light. In due time, the others will understand my motives and why I must commit this horrible act…Chapter 2: The Red Fountain
My growing abilities led to a growing curiosity about the compound and those with in it. During my tenure there, I found that the majority of the Keepers had a one point been homeless. I was even more surprised to learn that there were several Keepers placed in High Houses, such as the Bafford, Ramirez, and Burios families. The Keepers had a serious information network. There was practically nothing that happened within the city that they didn’t know about. They even had access to information that the Sheriff didn’t have.
Jason had endured his term as the rogue. He seemed a little wary of Tobias after that night. He wouldn’t seek out Tobias for information and when approached by Tobias, he would always try to make the conversations as short as possible. There was something about our Leader that Jason was uneasy with. I trusted that judgement especially after the lack of ruins out side the day after the invasion.
The manor had three levels above the ground, which included a health spa complete with glowing gora mushrooms to help the healing process, a dorm wing, and several libraries filled with ancient tomes and books. Jason had taught me how to read a little bit so when I had the chance, I tried to learn as much as I could about the ancients. Jason said they were a magnificent race of people. He said they tamed the elementals and build massive underground cities. The drawings in the scrolls I read showed awe-inspiring gates and domed galleries at least twice as tall as our own home.
The Compound also contained several subterranean levels. The first one, which also provided a front for us, was a seedy pub. The first half was for guests and patrons while the second half was exclusively for the Keepers. It was lavishly decorated and housed the finest drinks and food. The further levels were all below the sewers. Some rooms were for storage while others were private studies. Jason had a study down here and he told me that after my first mission, he would show me what his project was. The final level was simply a large cavern with smoothed walls and a massive stone door way at the back. There were many smooth round rocks to sit on and enjoy the cool damp air from. In the middle of the room, a single fountain stood. It was said to be made of ruby and agate. The details also hinted of obsidian. From the ceiling, water trickled down and into the basin and then shot up again in true fountain fashion. I think I would have loved this place the most out of the entire compound had it not been for the lack of light and plants.
The second day after the Hammer Sabbath was always event day. The entire compound would gather in the main hall and listen to what their missions would be for the week. Usually, only the older Keepers would be assigned to a mission but occasionally, a novice would be slipped in on a simple mission for experience sake. The lists were read and eventually my name as well as Kale’s came up on the list for a mission. It was an undefined mission but we were both ecstatic. It could have been merely running to the smiths shop to get new horseshoes, it didn’t matter. It was our mission.
Tobias listed off the missions. Ours was a simple one. Jason, Kale, and I were to head north of the city. Tobias said that there was a cave where the giant spiders were nesting. Several farmers had complained about the spiders taking their livestock during the night. Recently, the spiders had become bolder and even dared to steal the cattle and sheep while the shepherd was watching. Tobias said the only reason for this was an over population. A Keepers job is to maintain a balance of power. Until now, I had thought this only meant humans but Tobias said that if the spiders were allowed to continue at their current rate, the infestation of the city would be imminent.
I noticed Tobias grin wickedly shortly after he gave us the mission. From the look on Jason’s face, I knew we were in for a fight.
The following day, we set out towards the hills using some horses we borrowed from Bathis, the local horse raiser. I had never been outside the city but I liked what I saw. An urchin like myself never knew what living green looked like. I had never seen the sky so blue or heard the delightful humming of the insects in the fields. Jason told us not to get too comfortable. If bandits decided to attack us in the open, what we had learned other than the melee skills would be pointless since we were meant to move at night not during the day or in an open field.
There was a small village situated on the base of the hills just outside of the city. We stopped for a break, fed the horses and decided to survey the town for any information that might help us. Most of the tavern-keeps had a wildly amazing tale about how they had single-handedly driven back a swarm or two of the spiders, but the booze on the breaths of most of them tended to make us not believe them.
We stopped a fine looking lady outside of the Egg Lair Inn, and she proved most informative. She told us that her father had ranch land near the opening to the spider caves and that she would be more than willing to help us in getting rid of the spiders. From there, we followed the lady, whose name was Victoria, to a small, modest ranch on the ridge above town.
She let us in and told us to make ourselves comfortable. The walls were decorated with trophies from, I would suspect, hunting trips. I saw deer, burricks, bear, and even something that looked like a giant crayfish. What a hunter her father was!
" Do you like my trophies, young one?"
I turned and was surprised to see Victoria was the one asking the question.
" You…you killed all these?"
" Why, yes? They weren’t as tough as the all seem. The deer and the bear were normal hunting, you know, out in the forest. The other two, I caught and killed on the site of a ruined city to the west of here. The lizard was especially hard to kill. And boy, did it stink on the way home!"
I stood a little off balanced as I could here Jason breaking into laughter in the background. I was making a complete fool of myself but the Keepers never taught me how to deal with embarrassment. Victoria smiled gently and handed me a warm cup of milk.
As the evening went on, she explained how the spiders were slowly growing in numbers. You can see some of the brooding grounds from the entrance on the cave. Jason suggested either fire in a couple of well-placed fire arrows or collapsing the cave entrance all together. We all liked the second idea because it meant us not having to actually fight many spiders. Kale was the first to agree to the collapsing idea.
We turned in for the night. Victoria said her father was away for the evening and wouldn’t be back until late the following day. Plenty of time for a trio of strangers to do the job and leave before the dad was any the wiser. Victoria gave Jason her father’s room for the night. Kale and I slept by the fireplace and Victoria used her own room.
The following morning, after a hearty meal of eggs and corn muffins, the four of us set off for the caves. We borrowed a couple of skeins of rope from Victoria’s barn. When we reached the cave, we were stopped in our tracks. The cave entrance had been webbed shut and seemed to pulsate from within. Victoria was adamant that his wasn’t a good thing and that we would indeed have to breach the cave.
Victoria lived up to her stories of being a monster hunter, when she agilely slide off her horse, drew a sword that we hadn’t even seen her bring and swiftly hack down the first web wall. The following walls were knocked down faster thanks to our help.
Once inside, our eyes adjusted and revealed a huge cave lined with pockets and side tunnels. Many spiders were flooding the floors. The normal ones weren’t the issue. We shrugged them off and then continued. We stayed close to each other and tried to hide in what thick shadows we could. Victoria noted how the spiders almost seemed to be patrolling and systematically looking for intruders. I dismissed that. Spiders were nothing more than common bugs. We all knew that, didn’t we?
We spent nearly an hour slipping out of harm’s way. We went further and further into the catacombs of the spider cave. We finally found the jackpot. The hive.
I never realized spiders formed communities. The queen, I think, was in the middle of it all. She was huge, nearly twice the size of Jason.
" We should be leaving now," I could tell Jason was worried about our situation. His voice trembled a little.
" Look at how they are working together. This is big, something is getting the spiders to be communal. And I don’t care what it is." Victoria stood, poised to move.
" What are you doing? We have to leave now, before they spot us!" Jason was trying his best not to shout. But he was right, more and more spiders were coming into the room. The chances of us winning this fight were getting slimmer by the minute.
" What… a… trophy…" and with that, Victoria sprung from our hiding spot and made a mad dash straight for the mammoth spider.
" Do what you need to do to stop the spiders. I’ll be alright, I want the Queen!"
That was the last we heard from Victoria after we turned to leave. I hoped she was right and that she could handle the issues. Once our spot had been given up thanks to our over zealous partner, the spiders decided we were the next meal.
Jason lead the way, rapidly dodging talons and fangs while tagging the spiders left and right with his curved field sabre. Kale and I tried to keep up the best we could. The spiders were everywhere. I blindly fled through the tunnels and then I fell. The floor seemed to have opened up beneath me. That was the last thing I remembered until waking up in Victoria’s home with all three of them smiling and breathing sighs of relief that I was alive. Behind Victoria, I saw the head and upper torso of the queen spider. I guess she got her trophy after all.
Shortly after Garrett fell, Jason stopped for a breath. He didn’t see Garrett anywhere. He quickly pointed Kale in the direction of the cave entrance and then disappeared into the shadows. The spiders had stopped following him a while back. He dreaded what might have happen to Garrett. He saw the spiders huddled around the opening of a pit. They all were eagerly waiting for something, either for the Queen or possible for someone to try to come through the hole in the floor.
Jason hid and then pulled his collapsible bow from his hip. He then knocked an arrow. He drew and fired. An explosion echoed throughout the caves.
With the majority of the spiders killed or maimed, Jason continued on his mission. After firmly securing a rope to a nearby rock, he lowered himself into the hole. The interior of the following cave was surprisingly well lit by the glowing mushrooms on the walls and ceiling. He touched down and began his search of Garrett.
The room was full of webs and old, unused tools. He first lit an old lamp and then followed with a series of torches. The room was lit and I shined. The walls seemed a pristine white yet shimmered mysteriously. And then he saw Garrett. The youth lay limp on the ground. Several smaller spiders were inching towards Garrett.
As Jason brushed away the small vermin, one bit him and then scuttled off into some dark corner. When Jason was satisfied with Garrett’s condition, he looked around a bit. The room was nearly round, with a flat stone doorway placed at the end of the room. He saw several smooth, round stones placed throughout the room. This all reminded him of something but he couldn’t quite place it yet. Then he saw a giant fountain in the center of the room. It was red with hints of black. Water fell from the ceiling and then was spurted up into the air again. That’s why this place reminded Jason of something. It had the same layout as the fountain room on the bottom level of the Keeper Manor. But why did that disturb him so much? What was wrong about the room? Out of the corner of his eye, Jason caught the motions of a little spider crawling across the floor. He watched it climb onto one of the monolith stones in the room and then disappear into some hidden crack in the stone. Jason was about to pay it no mind when the rock started to shake and splinter.
Jason stood perplexed for a moment and then started to turn. Suddenly, the stone burst and within it’s rubble knelt a beastly figure. The Keeper held up his light to further examine the monster. Light flickered across the being’s face. It was…his face. Jason shunted back several feet in order to distance himself from the beast.
"What the hell are you?" He whispered under his breath.
The he remembered the spider that bit him and then disappeared. The little spider caused this. And if the room was the same as at the Manor, many unknowing Keepers were in grave danger.
Jason’s doppelganger suddenly dived for Jason. With no weapons or armor, or even clothes for the matter, the doppelganger was obviously not a match for a quick slash. The double crumpled on the floor and Jason slowly turned, slightly unnerved from the recent development. He picked up Garrett and carefully escorted the unconscious child to the rope. Jason tied Garrett onto the rope and then left to make sure no spiders were waiting for him at the top.
After hoisting up Garrett, Jason made a fast an escape as possible. Once outside, Kale and Victoria, hair and face bloody but with her prize, help him seal the tunnel. Jason placed a few fire crystals about the rim of the tunnel and jumped off just in time to avoid the explosion that followed both Kale and Victoria’s shots at them with their bows.
Jason was nerved wracked. Despite Kale’s assurances, he believed what happened to Garrett was his fault. He thought he should have been looking after him better. This was what Tobias wanted. He wanted Jason broken and the Novices sufficiently disposed of. Jason had news for Tobias, he wasn’t about to be broken like a plate dropped on the floor. If Tobias wanted a fight, he just picked himself the worst enemy a person could.
After leaving Victoria’s home and hospitality, Jason told us we wouldn’t be going back to the Manor for a bit. He said what had happened made him think about his position in the Keeper society and that in order to properly train us for what was to come, we needed to be away from what we had become accustomed to. Personally, after what had happened, I don’t ever want to see another spider again. Jason said we might have to. He needed something of his from his lab. He said that after we had been trained a bit more, we would have to actually break into our home just to retrieve his work.
Until that time, Jason said we were welcome to stay at the apartment he had been keeping for a while. He said it wasn’t much, but it had an opening to the rooftops as well as several secret closets and passages. The roofs were to be our training grounds and the halls was our home. At that point, I break from the Keepers was a more than welcome addition to my life.
Jason has left our halls for now. I suspect he will return. For within the Keepers, one can never leave even if that one has grown resentment like none that even the Builder could create. And when my prodigal son does return, his life will most definitely be part of a new chapter within my books. For it is within him, that my most sinister plans lie….