~~~~~ A Keeper's Apprenticeship ~~~~~

(A prequel to "A Thief’s Apprenticeship" by Aaron Graham, A.K.A. "Sneaksie Thiefsie")

Author: "Black" 8th October 2000

-= Chapter I =-

The sharp clicking of lockpicks in the lock was deafeningly loud to Garrett, and he pressed himself further into the scant cover that the shadows next to the doorway offered. Once again, he wished for the security provided by his sword, or even the bow and its attendant arrows, whose use he had now become proficient in. However, the laws of the Keeper Order specified that no Acolyte should be armed while on a mission. The aim, according to Keeper Tyball, was to encourage the youths to use tools other than weapons to work around problems. However, Garrett privately thought that if those problems proved insurmountable, then a weapon would be more desirable than the ability to move silently through shadows.

Thinking this, Garrett looked at the hooded figure next to him. His teacher, Keeper Tyball, was hunched over the lock, working the tumblers with practised dexterity. His lockpicks were old, but the lock on the door was even older. Eventually it swung open, revealing darkness beyond. Tyball stepped through the doorway from the shadowed street, and then a third hooded figure stepped through the door. Garrett followed him, shutting the door behind himself and standing aside to allow Keeper Tyball to work the tumblers again so that the lock clicked shut. The Keeper doctrine was one of stealth; if it was known that there had been interference, then the whole mission would have been for naught. Tyball pushed on the handle to make sure the door was locked, and then headed off down the darkened hallway. Garrett and the hooded figure followed silently.

Garrett mentally envisaged the map of the City Print Works in his mind. If he recalled correctly, the corridor led to a locked door, and from there to a stairway to the offices on the floor above. However, he was not confident in his recollection. There had been scant time to memorise the drawings which Keeper Tyball had brought to him several days ago. At a time when the rest of the Keeper Compound was in increasing disarray, the chances to memorise several sheets of parchment had been few and short. However, he had done his best, for he realised that this was possibly his most important mission yet.

Ever since he had been taken in by the Keepers as a teenager, he had been sent on errands. His early life as a message runner and pickpocket had given him an education that most Acolytes did not have. The Keepers drew most of their recruits from the City University, the City Library, and other such institutions of learning. A Keeper had to be well educated as well as Gifted; the ancient texts and glyphs of the Keepers required translation before they could be read. Garrett had missed many of his lessons in Keeper language and doctrine, preferring the physical challenges of the training course the Compound possessed. As a result, he was an exceptionally good Keeper, but not a Keeper Scholar. To him the difference was minimal, but others were loath to ignore the Gifted, but uneducated, teenager. Now reaching manhood, he had been assigned to Keeper Tyball as an apprentice, to learn from perhaps one of the finest Keepers.

Tyball had spoken with Garrett before they had left, explaining to the mystified apprentice why he had memorised the maps to a print works. The Hammerites were building a new temple over the sole, hidden, entrance to the Keeper Compound. There was no other way in to the high-walled structure other than through the tunnel and its disguised entrance. Now that was threatened. The Keeper doctrine specified minimal involvement wherever possible; sabotaging the building effort would not work, and might even alert the Hammerites that something was afoot. On the other hand, altering the building plans would not arouse so much suspicion. Only, of course, if the plans were not seen to have been exchanged.

That was the theory, and would have worked if the Keepers who had gone to exchange the plans had not found that the originals were printed on a special paper, in special ink, in a manner that would be impossible to forge. The only hope now was to find where the plans had been printed, alter them, and then print a new set. Garrett had been sceptical of this strategy, believing that neither he nor his master possessed the skill needed to flawlessly alter the plans. Then Keeper Tyball had introduced the man who padded into Garrett’s small room.

The figure’s hood was thrown back, to reveal the aged head of an old man. A wrinkled face, with white hair and eyes that were blank and watery. The hands that had thrown back the hood were also old, curled with arthritis and spotted with age. Garrett secretly laughed at the old man. This was who would forge the plans? However, his humour disappeared as Keeper Tyball began to speak. The old man was the Document Keeper, a shadowy figure who procured or produced the letters or passes the Keepers used to access forbidden areas. He was a recluse, working in his vaulted room with his assistant forgers. Often, all that could be heard was the scratch of quill on parchment, or perhaps the soft sound of the quills being dipped into the ink wells. The Document Keeper was extremely old. He had been alive when the Barricades had gone up, when the Baron had died and had been succeeded by his grandson.

The Document Keeper had then been a young Hammerite, newly ordained and eager to carry out his divine duty. On the fateful night that the events of the Cathedral had occurred, he was patrolling the streets of the Old Quarter, on the watch for thieves or other flawed creations of the Master Builder. Passing the Watchman’s Grave in Market Street he had become aware of a low groaning behind him, which gradually increased in volume. Turning around, he was confronted with a zombie, a monstrosity of rotting flesh and tortured groans that tottered on unwholesome legs. It raised a rotting arm to strike at him; he dodged, and the zombie fell forward with the force of its blow. He lifted his hammer, endowed with the Builder’s blessing, and brought it down on the zombie’s head. The monstrosity groaned in pain, and then the unclean energies that held it together dissolved, and the flesh, dead once more, spattered across the street.

The young Hammerite had run blindly from the horror, stumbling along streets that were now choked with fleeing people and the zombies that herded them. Eventually he reached the front line of the Hammerite defence, where his brethren held off the zombies with arrows of fire and holy water. He had leapt over the barrier ahead of the clutches of a zombie, and had fallen to the ground exhausted. However, the numbers of Hammerites were decreasing, as the legions of the undead grew larger. As Hammerites fell they became sword-wielding haunts, who wielded their weapons as the zombies wielded their arms. Hammerite priests became ghostly apparitions, who threw icy skulls in a ghoulish mockery of their living opponents’ magical holy missiles.

However, suddenly the undead seemed to disappear and begin to retreat. Pumped up with adrenaline, the young Hammerite had rushed over the barricade and now began to pursue the fleeing zombies. His brethren followed, but at a slower pace. He began to draw away from them, until eventually he was alone. He stopped, and rested in a doorway. Then, strangely, he became aware of shadows that were moving in the night, shadows that began to assume the form of cloaked figures. Believing them to be more undead heathen, he had launched himself at one of them, his hammer striking the figure on the head and knocking it to the floor.

He was of aware of the other shadows that he sensed stopping, but at that moment his brethren had arrived, and the shadows had stilled and could be seen any more. They had carried that unconscious, cloaked figure, to a nearby temple. There, a combination of the rack and Brother Inquisitor had made the now unclothed figure talk. He belonged to a sect known as the Keepers, who were tasked with keeping the forces of nature and progress, of chaos and order in balance. They were attempting to seal these unnatural products of necromancy, the undead, into the now overrun Cathedral, by using the four Elemental Talismans they possessed to prevent the Cathedral doors from ever being opened again. The Keeper had yielded the location of the Talisman of Air, and had then died under the ministrations of the Inquisitor. Then the visits had started. The young Hammerite had begun to see shadows that flitted about behind him, or quiet footfalls when there was no one else present. Eventually they had left a note, asking him to meet with them. He was Gifted, and would be a valuable asset to the Keepers. A visit with them to the vast library in the Keeper Compound had decided the matter, and the man had been a Keeper ever since.

Shaking his head and returning himself to the present, Garrett walked carefully, his ears alert to the sounds of others’ footsteps. Keeper Tyball carried on down the corridor, until he reached the locked door at the end of it. Here he brought his lockpicks out of his cloak, and once more bent down to his task. Garrett could hear the sharp snick of the picks as they worked the tumblers. Eventually the last pin clicked round into place as the bolt slid back, and then Tyball cautiously opened the door a crack. Light spilled in, and a narrow line illuminated the bricks of the corridor wall through which they had just travelled.

Tyball waited at the door for some time, listening for any footsteps. Supposedly the place was not guarded, but there was no need to take risks on so important a mission. The night was still young, young enough for caution to overrule haste. When he was satisfied that they did not have any unexpected company, he eased the door open, and slid out into the new corridor. This was lit with torches that flickered in their holders, and created dark shadows in the cracks of the stones that comprised the wall. The floor was wooden, the ceiling plaster. There were wooden doors that led off from the corridor, and a flight of wooden stairs at the end.

Keeper Tyball crept out of the doorway, and made his way towards the stairs. The damp was detectable in the surrounding air. Garrett followed his teacher; the Document Keeper was close behind. The young Acolyte looked to his left, through an open door into the room beyond. It was Spartan and crude, with rough furniture and no decoration. It seemed to be the office of a minor draftsman or clerk - certainly the bottles of ink and sheets of parchment belonged there. However, both of his fellow Keepers passed it without a glance, and so Garrett followed behind them, up the stairs and to the next storey.

Here the décor was grander and richer, with carpet on the floor and electric lights suspended from the ceiling. With the power in the building off, they were dark and lifeless. Eventually, Keeper Tyball halted, and stepped towards a door. His hand went to the handle, but it yielded to a downward force without any resistance, and the door swung open. The room beyond was that of a draftsman, with a desk, large drawing board, rolls of tied papyrus and parchment, and bottles of ink and boxes of quills. In one corner hung an ink-stained apron, worn and discoloured.

The next door was more promising. The room was the same size as the previous one, but a whole wall of this place was covered in reinforced shelves, which held thick metal plates. Running all over the plates were delicate lines, circles and figures, carved with intricate delicacy into the tarnished metal. They were a bright gold to the dirty, dull shine of the plates. The Document Keeper at once headed for these, and began examining the designations carved into the plates. Meanwhile, Keeper Tyball went over to the other side of the room, to where several heavy, steel desks were lined up. At the back edge of each was a special stand. He lifted up the lid of the central desk, and took from it a set of knives, and other tools of the draughtsman’s trade. He tested the edge of the blade of the finest knife with his finger, and nodded in satisfaction as the metal glided through his glove with ease.

Silently, the Document Keeper motioned to Garrett, who went over to the plate being indicated, and lifted it out of its shelf. Treading carefully, he brought it over to the desk that had been prepared. Supported by the other Keepers, he lay it down onto the stand, and then stepped away. Keeper Tyball signed for them to stay in the room, and then left, treading almost silently over the wooden floor. The Document Keeper drew a stool up to the desk and sat down. He stretched forth an aged hand for the tools which Tyball had lain down, and felt each one, checking the blades as the other Keeper had done.

Garrett became impatient, and began to move towards the door. So far, the expedition had gone smoothly, boring him more than the endless lessons back at the Keeper Compound had. Even on the streets as a young boy he had craved excitement. The Document Keeper looked up at him, but made no move to arrest the Acolyte’s passage. At the door, Garrett looked up and down the hallway, and then moved off towards the unexplored part of the building. As he crept he thought in his mind how to explain himself to Tyball, when he went back. Tyball was a fair tutor, but demanded obedience above all things. Garrett shrugged. He could just say that he was trying to find any useful information. The Keeper doctrine emphasised the need for information to enable the Balance to be preserved; the vast library at the Keeper Compound was evidence of this.

The floor yielded little of interest, most of the documents appearing to be kept in a single safe in the manager’s office. He spent several minutes trying to open it, but was forced to desist after nearly damaging the lock and bending his crude pick. However, he did manage to find one document of value. It was in a drawer that had not been locked, and was hanging open when he entered the room. He held it close to his eyes and read:

Cartinase ~

The Order of the Hammer dost truly thank thee for thy service in the drawing and printing of our architectural blueprints. As thou art, perchance, already aware, the recent events with the Pagan heretics in Eastport hast damagéd our offices there to the point by which that they are virtually unusable. We are most grateful for thy provision of a draughtsman to complete the plans that our Order rescued from the wreckage. Also, as thou knowest, it is most undesirable for us to have in existence a man who dost know the intimate details of our glorious new temple to The Builder. Thou wouldst be adequately compensated for thy loss if the man were to be found to be engaged in criminal activities. Cragscleft is the only destination for those who defy the word of the Master Builder.

As a reward for thy services, in addition to the handsome amount that hast been paid to thee, we of the Order are prepared to consider with favour any structural additions thou might consider necessary to thy buildings. We wouldst be willing to provide thee with a number of our tamed burricks, or even a member of our Order as a consultant. To request such help, all that thou needst do is deliver thy request to the burrick stables in Prisongate, or to me at our Cathedral.

Once again, we thank thee for thine assistance.

~ Brother Mortice

The rest of the rooms of the floor were merely offices, with more shelves of plates or rolls of parchment. Garrett examined the first set of parchments he encountered, but upon discovering that they were only building plans he did not examine any more. Eventually he ended up back at the room with the Document Keeper, and went through the door to find the man engaged with scribing lines into a fresh plate. Keeper Tyball stood over his shoulder, looking at the man’s work. At Garrett’s entry he jerked his head up alertly, and the Acolyte saw anger in his tutor’s eyes. However, Tyball said nothing. Instead he beckoned Garrett to follow him, and walked past him to the door. They went along the hallway to a door that Garrett had tried, but found locked. Tyball crouched down and worked at the look with his picks, and eventually the mechanism in the door clicked. The Keeper pushed the door open, and proceeded through. In the room beyond there were stacked piles of unidentifiable machinery, while in the corner there was an elevator shaft and a console. Tyball went over to the elevator shaft, and looked down it.

Garrett came and looked too. The elevator was locked down at the bottom, and with the power off the console that operated it was useless. However, Tyball reached into his cloak and slipped his bow off its mounting. His other hand reached behind his back and drew an arrow from the quiver. Competently, he knocked the arrow into the bow, drew back the bowstring, and took careful aim at the wooden ceiling of the shaft. He flicked the fingers holding the bowstring forward, and the arrow sped away, immediately impacting into the wood. The arrow, having been specially treated by a Mage, was not bound by the laws of perceived reality, and physics were as naught to it. From the foot of the arrow uncoiled a rope, which extended down into the elevator shaft. Only about 20 feet in length, the rope was long enough to allow Tyball to jump onto it, and slide softly down the stone-lined shaft. Garrett followed, with much more velocity, sliding down the rope and landing with a loud clang on the metal elevator platform. Tyball whirled round in alarm, and his face showed intense anger as Garrett slipped hastily away from the platform. Then he froze, waiting for any indication that the sound had been heard. He waited for several minutes. Then, when there was no reaction, he moved forward towards Garrett. Raising his hand, he caught the Acolyte’s wrist in an iron grasp.

"Have you learned nothing from your time with us?" he hissed, his eyes hard and cold. "Do you not remember your training? Do you need me to guide you through the training course again?" Garrett tried to shrink back from his teacher’s anger, but the hand kept a tight grip on his wrist. "Be very careful, Garrett." Tyball said, his voice softer but more menacing for it. "You may be a skilled Acolyte, but you can still go back to where you came from." The Acolyte gulped, and opened his mouth to stammer an apology. However, Keeper Tyball turned round and walked away, moving to a stone corridor lit with flickering torches at far intervals. His anger at Garrett’s performance was clear.

Garrett paused for a moment, and then walked hurriedly off to join his tutor. He was not accustomed to such harsh criticism; his poor upbringing had given him a burning ambition to succeed, to make something of himself. He wanted to escape the darkness and treachery of The City, the schemes and plots of the Baron and the nobles and the City Wardens. Joining the Keepers was a way out, a way for him to escape from the streets. He sometimes entertained notions of leaving the Keepers, and making a living for himself by... "other means" with the talents of stealth which he had learnt. However, he thought to himself as he glided along, while he was still making mistakes of the kind he just had, it might be better to remain with the security of the Keepers.

Ahead of him, Keeper Tyball was bent at a lock, picks clicking as they worked it open. Eventually the latch slid back, and the heavy wooden door was pushed open. Beyond was a mass of machinery, of pipes and boilers and cogs and gears that lay silent and still. Belts of chains ran round wheels and disappeared into holes in the ceiling, while the moss-covered walls seemed to have sprouted gauges and meters that lay dim and quiet. Tyball went over to a particular profusion of gauges on one of the walls, and worked the levers there for several seconds.

Behind Garrett, the cogs and gears of the machines began to move, rotating against each other as power was fed into the equipment behind them. The belts began to move as the wheels did, and the gauges on the walls became alive with the flickering of needles against glass covers. A deep, bass knocking filled the room, and the sound gradually decreased into a steady hum as the individual knocks became quieter and merged into the general sound. Power had been restored. Now the next task could begin.

The two Keepers returned to the lift, whose button was now operational. From here the sound of the generator was a low, barely audible hum. Tyball stepped onto the lift and jumped onto the rope. Arms straining, he pulled himself upwards. Garrett waited until he had reached the top and jumped off the rope before he tried the ascent himself. Hand over hand, he clawed his way up the elevator shaft, lifting himself off the floor. At the top he jumped onto the floor, landing with a muted thud as his feet came into contact with the floor.

Tyball was waiting at the door, and together they both walked back to the room with the Document Keeper. Garrett looked nervously at his tutor, wondering uneasily why he was so silent. He had made a mistake he knew, but he did not think that Tyball was right to treat him so.

Tyball leaned over the Document Keeper, and bent down to speak in a low voice with him. Garrett stood at the door, worried, and watched as the two other Keepers spoke in hushed tones. Finally they both stood, and the older Keeper picked up the metal plate. New engraved on it were a profusion of fines lines and circles, with delicate lettering and numbering. The template had been completed.

The three Keepers departed, the Document Keeper holding the template. As they walked along the corridor Garrett saw the old man beginning to stagger under the weight. He moved over to help him, but was dissuaded from this by the tiniest shake of Tyball’s hooded head. Shortly afterwards the Document Keeper left, moving off down a set of stairs Garrett had not noticed. Tyball walked on.

Eventually they came to a metal door, with the legend ‘Control Room’ above the frame. Tyball produced a metal key from one of his numerous pouches beneath his cloak, and slid it into the lock. Upon turning the key the lock clicked, and Tyball pushed the door open. Together they went in.

The room was obviously a control room. There were two consoles of gauges, buttons and levers, and two windows which looked out into a large room. In this space was a complex array of machinery, with cogs and gears that were now spinning, and moving belts that disappeared into the floor. There were large boxes which held ink and parchment, and the conveyor belt in the centre ran though all of the machinery. As Garrett was looking at this, he saw the Document Keeper re-emerge and walk slowly along with the precious template, until he found ladder and began to climb onto the top of the machine with it.

Behind Garrett, Tyball coughed. Garrett spun round, and saw that his tutor had thrown his hood back to expose his face. His eyes were still hard but no longer cold, while his face was set in an expression of disapproval.

"Garrett," he said softly "I must apologise for my words. They were uncalled for." Garrett opened his mouth to speak, but Tyball continued. "I believe that you know you earned them, but it was not my position to say them. Anger, the greater folly, disrupts the Balance, as does the lesser folly of sentiment. I should not have said them. However, I need to know that you understand your mistake. Are you aware of what you did wrong?" Garrett, amazed, could only nod. "Good. Then it is done." said Tyball. "You have the potential to be an excellent Keeper, if only your pride will let you accept failure. Now, I have need of you. Stand by the window, and alert me as to the Document Keeper’s signals."

Garrett turned, walked to the window, and looked down. The Document Keeper had set up the template, and had lain it down ready in the machine. He looked up and waved at the Acolyte, who turned to report it. However, he saw Tyball staring at the machine, reading the labels by the levers and buttons to himself. Perceiving Garrett’s stare he looked up, and then down again as his Acolyte passed on the message.

The three Keepers worked in this manner for what seemed, to Garrett at least, an eternity. Eventually, however, the Document Keeper signalled that he had completed his task; the new blueprint was finished. The young Acolyte conveyed this signal to Keeper Tyball, who began once again flicking levers, and twisting incomprehensible dials. Whilst this was being done, the Document Keeper returned to the others, and Garrett was given the plans. If any catastrophe struck, the plans would be with the fastest runner. Pessimistic, even morbid, maybe, but practical nevertheless. The Keeper philosophy demanded calm practicality such as this in all situations; the Balance must never be lost to psychological frailties.

On this occasion, the Keepers' lack of dependence upon weakening emotions was, in fact, fortunate. Keeper Tyball's hands moved faster and faster over the controls, the man's composure gradually disappearing as he failed to find the correct procedure to halt the machine's staccato clanging and whirring. The young Keeper Acolyte found even more to be concerned about; a smell of burning caught his attention. He looked up, and noted with horror that thin wisps of smoke were curling out from one of the machine's several vents. Garrett spoke softly, even in this time of panic, as he brought this smoke to the attention of his comrades. The smoke was becoming gradually thicker, the resonant discord of the iron creation becoming a crescendo of noises which the machine was most certainly not intended to make. Finally, the heat generated by the constant grinding of metal on metal ignited the gases now seeping throughout its workings, with a deafening explosion.

The Keepers only suffered slight injuries, but that was now the least of their problems. They heard a shout in the corridor, followed by a response from another. Tyball looked up, his will clinging onto the last remains of his composure. A thud was heard on the door to their small room, which was now locked from the inside. Instinctively, the three Keepers darted for the shadows in the wall which housed the door, and just as they had done so the door crashed inwards as two of the printing company's guards burst in.

The guards looked at the towering inferno and then at each other. Doing this, one of them caught sight of a shadow which moved towards the door. Assuming that some thief was trying to make his escape after vandalising the printing machine, he let out a cry. "Hey! Where'd you come from?! Hold it right there, taffer!" The Keepers had no intention of waiting. Garrett was first out of the door, followed by the Document Keeper as Tyball danced briefly with the guards who were between him and the door. Seeing a chance, he too darted for the door. Garrett mouthed a single phrase to the two Keepers outside this room: "I think we've worn out our welcome." This was no time for humour, though, as the cold light of Tyball's steely blue eyes glared at the Acolyte.

This was no time for a confrontation between Garrett and Tyball, either, as the two guards realised that the intruder was outside the room. The Keepers fled, and as they did so they demonstrated to their pursuers that there were three of them. The Keepers had no wish to fight, though, because they knew that if they drew their swords and made a stand, they may prevail over the first few, but more and more guards would arrive, and the weight of numbers would triumph. Especially, thought Garrett to himself, as a certain Acolyte here wasn't allowed to carry a sword on a mission.

In this manner, the guards, joined by others along the way, pursued three fleeing shadows all the way to the entrance hall near the main gate. Here, the aged and ailing Document Keeper stumbled. Garrett turned to help the old man, but the swordguards were closing in on them startlingly quickly. Amongst their number was an archer. "You're a pincushion now, taffer!" he yelled, and let the winged steel fly.

The arrow missed its mark, but pinned the Document Keeper's cloak and leather jerkin to the wooden floor; trapping the old man with it. Garrett tugged at the shaft, but the guards were drawing ever closer, and it would take the archer but a few seconds to knock back another arrow; his second shot may be more accurate than the first. Garrett looked into the old man's eyes, and saw that he was resigned to his fate. In the tradition of his training, to suppress sentiment and other impurities, the young Acolyte fled once more, following the way Tyball had gone. As he glanced back, he saw the Document Keeper being run through with a sword. Dead, through Tyball's incompetence.

-=Chapter II=-

Now, it was time for the second part of the plan; the modified blueprints having been printed, they now needed to be swapped with the real ones.

Garrett listened to the footsteps coming from the floor above him. Slow and rhythmical, they gradually faded from earshot, returning a short while later. The footsteps had been doing this for the whole time Garret had been waiting in the small subterranean walkway. He and Keeper Tyball were to meet there three hours after dusk, but as usual Garrett's impatience had caused him to be ready for his mission a while before his mentor was. Above him, Garrett inspected the panel in the ceiling. On this side, it was clearly visible; on the other side, he knew it to be indistinguishable from the surrounding flagstones.

At the appointed hour, Tyball arrived, and gave a nod to his apprentice. The small lantern in the corridor was carefully blown out. When no footsteps could be heard, the two Keepers raised the secret panel and pulled themselves out into the dimly lit corridor above. Once the floor tile had been replaced, two shadows darted to join the other shadows at the sides of the corridor. No sooner had they done so when the Hammerite guardsman rounded the corner, continuing his patrol. As he passed them, Garrett caught a glimpse of a small object on the man's hip; a key. The Acolyte glanced across to Tyball, unsure whether to steal this key or not. It may be that the key will be needed by them later, but taking the key may also alert the guard to their presence, if he needs it and finds it to be missing. Tyball's hood swayed slightly, and Garret understood this as a "no". Patience prevailed; if they needed the key later, they could always return for it.

They had studied the plans of the temple, and navigation was not too difficult. The two intruders followed the guard on patrol, until he passed what was to be the main chapel. They slipped in through the as yet doorless entrance, and froze as they realised they were not alone; a priest was by the makeshift altar, offering a prayer to the Builder. As they waited in the shadows, Garrett gazed around the room. It was odd to see a Hammerite establishment in this way, usually everything is perfectly crafted, spotlessly clean, and richly decorated. Now, however, roof-timbers lay half plastered, stonedust covered all horizontal surfaces, and the walls were devoid of tapestries, paintings, or any of the other Hammerite icons.

The priest departed, leaving by the doorway through which Garrett and Tyball had recently entered. A set of steps lead down from the opposite end of this room, and the two Keepers made their way down these. At the bottom stood two Hammerite guardsmen, on stationary custodial duties. It would be impossible to sneak past them, this much was obvious. They both seemed to be at less than their most vigorous; probably they had been standing there for hours. The Hammerites were facing the other way, and the Keepers approached them from behind. As they drew closer it became clear that one of the guards was falling asleep at his post, his head nodding periodically. Tyball, behind this sleepy fanatic, glanced over to Garrett. He motioned for the Acolyte to steal the ring from the other guard's finger. Garrett was flattered by his mentor's confidence in his abilities as a pickpocket, but nevertheless wished he did not have to perform this somewhat tricky task, and also wondered at what reason Tyball had for wanting him to do so in the first place.

However, Garrett dropped softly down onto his knees, so that his face was level with the Hammerite's hand. He blew gently upon the hand, safe in the knowledge that the guardsman would doubtlessly dismiss it as a normal breeze. The reason Garrett did this was so that the man would already have the thought in his brain to dismiss the soft sensation which his skin was detecting. If Garrett could only be as soft as the wind now passing over the guard's hand, then he could take the ring without being detected, since anything the man felt which was gentle enough would be subconsciously believed to be the moving air.

Slowly, bit by bit, Garrett eased the ring further and further down the finger. He kept two of his fingertips lightly touching the part of the finger where the ring had been, so that no loss could be perceived. Finally, the ring popped off the end, and into Garrett's lap. He gently released the finger where the ring had been, and looked across to Keeper Tyball, who had allowed himself a slight smile at the gifted Acolyte's manual dexterity. Tyball mimed throwing an object out in front of the guard, and Garrett understood now what was to be done. He tossed the ring gently forwards, so that it landed a short distance in front of the Hammerite, with a faint tinkling sound. The guardsman moved forwards, his eyes straining in the dim light to see what had made the noise. He took another step forwards, and spotted his ring on the cold stone floor. He bent to pick it up, muttered something about having the ring tightened by Brother Goldsmith, and returned to his post. By the time he had done so, the two Keepers had already slipped by unnoticed.

After a series of hallways, they came across the door they were searching for. It bore a plaque with the words "Temple Office". The two intruders pressed themselves against the wall beside it, to allow a guard past. When he was gone, Tyball brought out his lockpicks, and set to his task. After a series of small clicks, each tumbler had found its place by the shear line and the bolt slid back in response to the probing spring-steel. Tyball opened the door a crack, and Garrett peered through. He noted that the room was unoccupied, and motioned to Tyball that it was safe to enter, and did so. When they were both in, the door was closed and the bolt sprung back into place by its own mechanism, with a resonant snapping sound. The two Keepers winced, but nobody else was in earshot. The two men flitted around the room, looking for the building plans. No blueprints were forthcoming, however. Garrett came across a document which read:

Master Forger~

It is my pleasure to inform thee that the work on the architectural plans is now complete, and ready for thine inspection. This having been said, the draughtsman hath requested that he spend one more day at his labours, that he might make sure all is correct. Indeed, the plans shalt be upon thy desk in thy quarters come nightfall. May the Master Builder smile upon the great temple being constructed in his honour.

~ Brother Clerkson

This was not what they had been hoping to read. Perhaps this mission was going to be longer than anticipated. Garrett replaced the scroll in its drawer, and the two Keepers left the room. They knew that the sleeping quarters lay on the floor below this one. The two intruders scouted around for a stairway leading down, and eventually came across a damp spiral staircase, carved out of the stone. They were now several floors beneath the surface, and Tyball noted that it was a wonder the Hammerites had not tunnelled into the underground sections of the Keeper Compound.

During their exploration of the floor, a strange noise was heard. After a few seconds, it became clear that somebody was singing, and not too tunefully, either. This part of the floor was for the dormitories of the workers who were currently building the temple around themselves. The two Keepers realised this meant that they were in the wrong part of the barracks; a Master Forger would surely not be drunk, as this singer obviously was. Tyball thought back to his only encounter with the minions of the Trickster. He had heard an apebeast singing, and at the time he had thought this to be the worst singing voice ever; now he wondered if he had been mistaken.

The pair moved on, leaving the doleful droning behind them. As they came to a junction, a placard was visible on the wall of one of the corridors, which helpfully said: "Master Forger" with an arrow pointing in the relevant direction. Garrett smiled, and admired the Hammerites' well-organized lifestyle. A trait which made missions like this one so much easier.

After a few seconds, a voice was heard. It said "Needs must I come, I knows.". The two Keepers darted for the abundant shadows, as they wondered how they could have been detected, when certainly they had been making no noise, and there was no-one in sight. The voice spoke again: "Ah! The snake shows himself!" At this, a black-clad figure, dressed in a style not unlike that of the Keepers, came sprinting down the passageway in which the Keepers were hiding. Garrett recognised the man as Morri, a thief working for the Crime Warden, Raputo. Last time they had met, Morri had left Garrett lying face down, unconscious, bleeding in the gutter. A Hammerite guardsman rounded the corner behind the thief. He was also running as fast as possible. The Hammerite cried out once more: "The land of the Heathen shall consume thee!" As Morri approached the hiding place of the Keepers, Garrett forgot his Keeper training, the ethics of non-interference, and acted on the part of vengeance. He stole the thief's sword as he passed, taking care not to let Tyball see his crime. Morri, made short of stamina by excessive consumption of the wares from The Crippled Burrick tavern, was quickly losing ground to the pursuing Hammerite. As the guard caught up with the thief, Morri turned and made to draw his sword. Taff of the ages for him, though, as his sword was lying in a shadow near Garrett. The Hammerite grinned, and struck Morri a glancing blow to his shoulder, using his huge hammer. The thief cried out, and slammed into the wall. The Hammerite saw that he was winning easily, and warned: "Prepare to explain thy sorry existence to thy Builder, flawed creation!". With that, he struck a devastating blow to the thief's skull, and watched the figure slump to the floor. He nodded in satisfaction. He returned to his patrol, leaving the mess on the wall for someone else to clear up in the morning. Hammerite work ethic was usually better than this, but the guard in question was too tired to worry about that now. It was bad enough that the Master Forgers had decided that watchshifts should be lengthened, without having to chase heathen scum down slippery corridors at this time of night.

When all was quiet, the Keepers moved on. Tyball noticed a glint in Garrett's eye, and wondered why this was. Perhaps Garrett just enjoyed seeing excitement such as this. He would question him upon the matter at later time, when they were back in the safety of the Keeper Compound.

Eventually they came to a room with a sturdy iron door, a contrast to the quickly assembled wooden doors in the rest of this floor. This must be the Master Forger's room, though Garrett. Tyball apparently shared this opinion, and set to his usual task of defeating the lock. For some reason, the pins seemed to not want to move. It was as if... as if... Tyball smiled as he realised his ridiculous mistake. He withdrew his lockpick, and tried the doorhandle. It yielded; the Master Forger had neglected to lock the door. A clear sign, thought Garrett, that his master had spent too much time in the Keeper Compound's extensive library. After spending so long looking for hidden meanings in the glyph texts, Tyball had apparently forgotten not to overlook the obvious. As he thought about his mentor's stupid mistake, his mind wandered back to the events of last week, when Tyball's mistake had cost the life of the Document Keeper, surely one of the Order's most valued Keepers. Were all Keepers as fallible as Tyball? Garrett had heard other Keepers speak of the great talent of Tyball. Garrett struggled to suppress feelings of superiority. He felt himself to be a lot better than the other Keeper Acolytes, though admittedly there were not many of his age in the Order. He reflected upon the mistake he himself had made, in the elevator shaft of the printworks, and the resultant harsh treatment from Tyball, anger welled up inside him. Now, as he watched Tyball picking the lock to the safe in the Master Forger's room, he realised for the first time how much he despised his master.

Although Garrett wanted to be the best he possibly could, he wrestled with his feelings of animosity. Were the Keepers all hypocrites? The Order believed in non-interference, yet surely non-interference, and keeping the Balance, were mutually exclusive; if the Keepers never interfered with anything, then nothing would get done, and the Balance would have to look after itself.

Tyball finished picking the lock, and beckoned Garrett. The youth came, and passed the counterfeit plans to Tyball, who put them in the safe, taking the real plans with him. Garrett looked across to the Master Forger, asleep in the corner. There, he saw a man who had a much easier life than that of the Keepers. He lived a life of mostly politics, having ascended the ranks of the Order of the Hammer. Garrett for a moment wished that he had the lifestyle of the Master Forger, then remembered that he didn't believe in the Master Builder, didn't enjoy hard work, and, perhaps most importantly, he knew he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he was dressed in the bright red garb of the Order of the Hammer. Yes, he thought, the Hammerites were even more self-righteous than the Keepers, so perhaps he was in the right Order after all.

He left the room, and Tyball closed the door behind them. He stooped to lock the door, and promptly remembered that the door was unlocked when they found it. Garrett shook his head slightly, as he resolved never to become like his master.

The two Keepers made their way back to the concealed entrance. Retracing their steps, they returned to the top floor. They waited in shadow as the guard of the corridor with the secret hatch passed them, then hurried to the appropriate floor tile. They lifted it, and lowered themselves down. The hatch was wide enough for them both to descend at once, and they pulled the panel back into place, just in time to hear the guardsman rounding the corner.

They returned to the Keeper Council room. They were greeted by grave faces.

-= Chapter III =-

Keeper Orland stepped out of the shadows in the far end of the room. He was a tall man, dressed in the usual Keeper style; Keepers did not have the luxury of choosing clothing, practicality dictated that they be dressed for concealment at all times, especially at times such as these, when there are many jobs needing to be done, and precious few Keepers to do them.

He spoke. "Well done. I trust your mission went smoothly." Tyball nodded his head, still hooded, but Garrett remained motionless. He was still angry at Tyball's incompetence. Orland continued: "Regrettably, we have now discovered that the building construction must be slowed. We have had difficulties sealing the entrance, due to the assorted sewers and power conduits which run so closely. It would be unwise to leave rooms in the area beneath the temple unsealed, as they may be uncovered by the Hammerites' digging." Keeper Orland paused, and Tyball spoke:

"Yes. The Order of the Hammer has excavated more than the plans show, it appears that considerable work has been done, whilst the workers were still waiting for the completion of the blueprints."

Keeper Orland looked across to Garrett. "Keeper Garrett, what is your opinion? I am eager to hear the insight of an Acolyte such as yourself. You certainly have the potential to be a good Keeper. Your physical talents are self-evident, but do you use them with as much prudence as skill?"

Garrett respected Keeper Orland, because Keeper Orland respected Garrett. Orland addressed Garrett with the title "Keeper", something which Tyball never did. Garrett raised his head, so that his face was now visible beneath the fold of his hood. His eyes met those of Orland, and he replied: "My opinion, Keeper Orland, is that we must find a way of slowing the construction, a way which will not arouse suspicion. If the Master Forger in charge of the work were to be befallen by an unfortunate... accident... then the Hammerites would be delayed, as they waited for a replacement to arrive from Newmarket, where the nearest temple is. When he arrived, it would take him a while to familiarize himself with the site, and the plans for it. But..." Garrett trailed off, uncertain whether he had overstepped his station, by suggesting that the Keeper Order assassinate a high-ranking official of the Order of the Hammer.

Keeper Orland raised an eyebrow, and prompted the youth to continue. "But..?"

Garrett paused, and then recommenced. "But... if we followed this course of action, the Hammerites in this part of The City would be weakened by the loss of a Master Forger whom they know. Some Hammerites may even leave the Order, if they do not work so well with the replacement Master Forger. To weaken the Hammerites, the force of progress in The City, would disrupt the Balance in favour of the forces of nature. The Balance must not be lost; another way must be found."

Keeper Orland was impressed by the Acolyte's foresight. He had in fact already spoken with the rest of the Keeper Council, whilst Garrett and Tyball were on their mission. A plan of action had already been conceived, but he wanted to see what idea the Acolyte would produce. "Well said, Keeper Garrett. Please continue, I am sure that you have already worked out another way. Share it with us." Garrett had not already worked out another way, and he knew that Keeper Orland knew that. He was testing the youth's on-the-spot thinking abilities. Garrett looked down. He racked his brain for a few seconds, then looked back up gain. His head remained bowed, so he was making eye-contact with Orland from beneath his brow. "There is a way. We could sabotage the equipment used to dig out the new rooms, an action which the Hammerites would dismiss as poor craftsmanship. The individual Hammerites who made the machines will surely be shamed, but this is a small price to pay; the shame of a few workmen will not weaken the Order of the Hammer as a whole. Of course, a method would have to be found of sabotaging the equipment without arousing suspicion."

Keeper Orland smiled. The Acolyte had come up with a plan in just a few seconds, a plan which was not dissimilar to the one it had taken the Keeper Council an hour and a half to agree on. He turned to Tyball. "Keeper Tyball, have you anything to add?" "No."

"Very well. The plan which we have decided upon is similar to Keeper Garrett's. The Hammerite machinery is not itself powered, nor driven by steam. It uses the older method of cranes, pulled by burricks. Of course, you were not aware of this, because you have only been on the premises by the hours of darkness. However, Keepers Nicodimus and Braben have been posted on daytime watches, relieving each other every three hours. Their report shows that the Hammerites are using burricks from Prisongate. It will be the mission of you two, Keeper Tyball, Keeper Garrett, to add gas crystals to the burricks' food. This will cause the creatures to be... out of service... for long enough for us to re-route the functions of the sewers and power conduits through others, and seal the appropriate areas. Do you understand?"

The two Keepers nodded.

"Good. No time must be lost, but it would be unwise for you to embark now; dawn is but a few hours away. You will begin at dusk, tomorrow night. I suggest that you study the relevant maps in the library, but for now, rest well."

Garrett and Tyball turned to leave. Keeper Orland spoke: "Before you do so, however, I must speak with you, Keeper Tyball, alone."

Garrett departed. As soon as he was out of sight, Garrett slipped into the shadow near the doorway. Tyball looked back and attempted to pierce the shadows, to check whether Garrett had gone, or was still on his way out. Garrett lokked into the eyes of his mentor, and it was evident that Tyball could not see him; his eyes failed to spot the Acolyte, even in his hastily chosen hiding place. From here, Garrett listened to the conversation between his mentor, Tyball, and the head of the Keeper Order, Orland. As he did so, he pondered with contempt upon his Master's lack of perception, failing to spot the youth in the narrow strip of darkness.

Tyball spoke first. "I am unsure that your faith in my apprentice is well-founded. His physical talents are, as you say, excellent. But I feel that he is too hot-headed to be a good Keeper."

"That remains to be seen. He has the potential to be an excellent Keeper. His heart is not clouded, merely unsure of purpose. I fear he does not agree with all of our edicts. However, it is not Garrett that I intended to discuss. The death of the Document Keeper - your report seems a little unclear as to why he was left behind, or, for that matter, why the printing machine had caught fire in the first place. Surely if you or he lacked the ability necessary to operate it, I would have been informed, and a more suitable operative would have been posted on the mission."

"I believe the error was on my part. the schematics of the printing machine, which I studied in our library, they were outdated. Thus, the machine was more difficult to operate than expected."

"Did it not occur to you to abandon your mission, so that it may be completed later, after we had acquired new blueprints of the machine?"

"It was not initially obvious that the machine was different. By the time I realised, it was too late. It was beyond my ability to stop the machine. It overheated, and ignited."

"I see. The mistake was unavoidable, but your mistake nevertheless."

"I understand."

"All make mistakes at times, but as the mistake is understood by its maker, it is sure not to be repeated."

The words of Keeper Orland reminded Garrett of the words spoken to him by Keeper Tyball, after Garrett had caused a loud noise in the printworks. He smiled as he heard the same thing being said to his mentor. Orland continued:

"Now, the other matter. The death of the Document Keeper. Tell me, how did he come to be left behind?"

"After the explosion, the guards nearby were of course alerted to our presence. We fled, and became separated. I continued on ahead; I know not what Garrett was doing whilst the Document Keeper was being killed."

"Did not the youth say that he had tried to help the Document Keeper?"

"It is true that he did. It is unclear, however, what he actually did to assist; whatever it was, it was not enough."

Garrett scowled. His efforts had been valiant. He had risked his life to save that of the Document Keeper, and now Tyball was dismissing it as nothing? He had stayed behind to help, whilst Tyball fled like a coward. True, sentiment had caused him to try to save the old man, and true, sentiment was frowned upon severely in the Keeper Order. The Document Keeper was a valuable member of the Order, though. Surely an exception should be made in situations which need it? Or was Tyball to rigid in his beliefs to realise that? It was Tyball's mistake that had caused the death of the Document Keeper in the first place, yet Keeper Orland seemed not to mind this- and the Keeper Council was surely unlikely to punish Tyball if Keeper Orland had no problem with what Tyball had done. Garrett realised that he had shown sentiment when he attempted to save the Document Keeper, and that he was showing anger now. He considered the Keeper philosophy as a whole, a philosophy riddled with contradictions, it seemed. He had heard enough for tonight, so he returned to his sleeping area. As he walked, his mind was busied with thoughts regarding his increasingly inimicable relationship with Tyball. He briefly considered removing Tyball from the scene completely. All it would take would be for him to steal his sword whilst on this next mission, kill him, and make up a story later about how Tyball had been killed by a guard. No. Garrett didn't trust the Keepers not to have a third Keeper watching the progress of him and Tyball, waiting always in the shadows a little distance behind. Besides, it would look bad for Tyball to die on a mission with Garrett, so shortly after the Document Keeper died on a mission with the same Acolyte. The death of the Document Keeper had not been Garrett's fault, he knew that, but Keeper Orland may be less certain if Tyball was also killed on a mission accompanied by him. No, he'd have to find another way, a way that didn't involve killing his teacher.

-=Chapter IV=-

The Acolyte woke with a start, from a nightmarish dream in which the Document Keeper was... was... the memory was fading rapidly. Until the death of the Document Keeper, Garrett had always thought of the Keepers as being almost invincible, or at any rate, superior to the common throng.

The Keepers had seemed to be ever in a position a step ahead of the various factions of The City. This was due to the intelligence gathered by regular watching and listening missions, and because of the prophecies which, though cryptic, revealed much wisdom. They revealed much wisdom, that is, if the reader is of sufficient mental ability to not only translate it, but also then understand the often ambiguous texts. The Keepers never wrote down translated versions of these tomes. It was considered to be too great a risk; if the knowledge contained were to fall into the wrong hands.

This was of little concern to Garrett, though. Not at the moment, anyway. He had spent much time of his valuable potential sleep time this night lying awake, thinking, plotting, planning. He wanted a way to live his life with a little more freedom than the strict laws of the Keeper Order permitted. Assassinating Tyball would be one way, since with his tutor dead, the apprentice would - hopefully - be considered proficient enough in the ways of the Balance to be without need of a replacement mentor.

On the other hand, Garrett somehow felt sure that he would not kill his teacher. Not because of sentiment, but practicality. Besides the reason he had thought of whilst listening in on Tyball and Orland's conversation, that it would seem too suspicious, there was another reason. To kill Tyball, he would almost certainly have to steal his sword- Acolytes were not allowed to be armed on missions, and the chances of stealing a guard's sword without Tyball noticing would be slim, to say the least. Morri's sword had been an exception; he had run in the darkness a short distance from Garrett's face. But would he be able to take Tyball's sword without him noticing? Garrett knew he needed to beware of being over-confident. The first - and only - time he had tried to steal from a Keeper, it had been Tyball. This was in the days when he was not yet with the Keepers; not, at least, until he had tried to pickpocket one in a crowded street. The man had detected him, and grabbed his wrist. The youth being caught in this manner was how he had first made contact with Keeper Tyball, and with the Keepers.

Now, however, he needed to put aside his thoughts of insurrection against the Keeper Order and concentrate on the forthcoming mission.

Dusk had fallen. Garrett had eaten a little, and prepared himself for the night ahead. He had by now grown accustomed to the life-style of a Keeper; a life-style with little or no circadian rhythm. A Keeper was expected to work whenever it was required, and sleep at a time which fitted in with the tasks which needed to be done, whether it be day, or night. The Keepers were not nocturnal; they were assigned sometimes to daytime missions, if some important event or meeting is taking place during the hours of sunlight, at which the Keepers wished to discreetly attend. Keeper Orland, who organized the "excursions" of the other Keepers, did try to make sure that everyone had the chance of good sleep, which kept them fresh and alert when they were working, but sometimes this was not possible. As Garrett set off with Tyball, he thought about the maps which he had made some time to study. They planned to enter by a sewer, which, if the schematics were correct, would allow them easy access to the burrick house itself, into the room next to the granary. Although some overprotective pet-owners claimed otherwise, burricks were omnivores. In their natural environment, they obtained their nutrition by ingesting the pulp made from dissolved rocks, and the lichens or other fungi which resided upon them. After the corrosive breath of a burrick had graced most objects, little was distinguishable for what it was. This included, Garrett reminded himself, people. He and Tyball would have to be sure not to alert the creatures; even if they managed to avoid the acidic fumes, the resounding bellow which constituted the creatures' alarm call would draw the attention of everyone in the building. Indeed, it would probably draw the attention of anyone in the nearby buildings, too, though apathy and the wish for a good night's sleep would probably cause them not to investigate. However, alerting the burricks was definitely a bad plan.

The two Keepers were now approaching the location of the sewer-hatch which they would use to access the subterranean network. The sound of booted feet could be heard, so they waited patiently in a shadow, as the Hammerite nightwatch guard, consisting of four fanatics armed with hammers, walked by. When they had gone, Garrett stepped forward, and made to open the hatch. Instead, he changed his mind halfway, and crouched down next to it, instead. If this hatch had rusted hinges, and was noisy, he had no wish of being the one to open it. This way, Tyball would be the scapegoat instead. The man opened the hatch, and it swung upwards silently. The two saboteurs descended carefully; the ladder had seen better days. The bottom of the sewer was dry. Perhaps this sewer was not in use, or perhaps it was blocked somewhere along its many twists and turns.

Tyball was navigating from memory, but after a few short minutes they were there. They reached a small iron portcullis, which barred the entrance to the private, albeit unused, sewer which serviced the burrick-house. A large lever was situated on the wall by the portcullis, which Tyball pulled. The soft whirring of cogs could be heard, as the grate lifted itself up into a slit in the ceiling. When they were both through, the same noise began again. They turned around in time to see the bars sliding back down into place, and there was no lever on this side. Tyball and Garrett tried together to lift the thing by force, but did not prevail. They would have to find another way out.

A ladder leaned against the wall in front of them, which they ascended. There was not a hatch on top of this like the one they had come in by, but a grate through which the dim light of the room above. After waiting to make sure that nobody was nearby, Garrett pushed this gently aside and lifted himself out. Tyball followed. Once the grate had been replaced, the two Keepers headed for the door of this room. The room which they were in was empty, with the exception of the grate in the floor, and a small oil lamp hanging from the ceiling. The function of this room was unclear. They listened at the door, which Tyball sagely diagnosed as being unlocked. A voice could be heard:

"...and so The Sir thinks we should increase the patrols down here..." He broke off, as a second voice, a rougher voice, interrupted.

"Don't see no point in that. Nothin' down here but t' smelly old burricks. What kinda crazy taffer'd try'n steal 'em?"

"The Sir's paranoid: he worries that one of the Wardens will be jealous of his success, and try to sabotage his workforce."

"Sabotage us? That's stupid!"

"No, the burricks you taffer. Poison 'em or something."

"The beasties'd probably eat anythin' what they're given. And they'd come to no 'arm by it, neither."

Footsteps followed, and faded, and it now seemed that the coast was clear for them to move on. They did so, albeit with something of a furtive glance on the part of Garrett; The boss of the burrick-house had been partially, at least, correct.

The two intruders having moved a little down the corridor, they came to another door. This one was surely the granary, where they needed to be. The door was locked, but soon it wasn't anymore. Two shadows slipped inside just as one of the guards returned, on his regular patrol.

Inside this small room, there were about a dozen sacks, presumably of grain. Garrett walked over to one, and opened it. They were not sealed, so he could do this with ease and without fear of leaving evidence of their presence. It was indeed full of grain. They had brought a small container of gas crystals, much smaller than the ones Garrett was by now used to seeing attached to the ends of arrows. A few crystals were added to each of the sacks; this would be enough to render the creatures unconscious.

That was their mission, and it was now accomplished. All they had to do now was exit the burrick-house. They listened at the door, and when the guard's footsteps started to grow quieter again, they stepped out into the corridor. The door was closed, and Tyball crouched to work the lock back into its "locked" position. There was no shadow in the immediate vicinity of the doorway, so Tyball was quite visible as he worked. Garrett padded over to a shadow a few feet away. Tyball was not quite done, when the footsteps became inaudible. From the pattern of footsteps they had been hearing, this meant that he was now about to return. Tyball headed for the same shadow Garrett had a few seconds prior, and they both waited for the guard, now walking towards them and in plain view, to reach them, go past them for a short distance, turn around, and head back the way he had just come. When he had done this, Tyball once more hurried over to the lock, and clicked the last few tumblers back to where they had been when he had found them. They slipped down this corridor, in the direction of the main stairway that should lead to the ground floor. Where they were now was a floor below ground level.

The stairs which they were looking for were not far away, and as they reached them, Garrett realised how much the clicking of the burricks' toes on stone as they walked around in their pen, somewhere nearby on this floor, had been annoying him. Now, however, it faded from earshot as they ascended the wooden stairs. There was another way up, obviously, which the burricks used, but this was in the form of a long ramp which could only be accessed by the burrick pen itself. Tyball seemed to be of a like mind to Garrett, if only on this matter. The burricks were best left alone. Besides the problem of the burricks themselves, there would probably be a few guards on stationary watch duties, posted to guard the burricks themselves.

They reached the top floor, and waited there in a shadow for a while, to observe the patrol patterns of the multiple guards. For a burrick stable, this place was pretty well guarded, thought Garrett. When it became clear that once in a while there were no guards present, they planned their next move. More accurately, Tyball planned their next move. He whispered softly to Garrett, who nodded slightly in comprehension. As the appropriate time arrived, they both darted across this open-plan hall, to the shadows at the other side. The floor tiles were echoey, but this was of little consequence, because the three guards patrolling here were making enough noise that each guard, upon hearing the Keepers, would assume the noise to be the other two guards.

Now that they were in this shadow, the two saboteurs knew themselves to be safe. They were about to move on, when they heard more footsteps coming from the direction in which they wished to go. They pressed themselves further into their shadow, which suddenly vanished as a powered light was switched on. Garrett groped behind him towards what he had suspected in the poor light to be a door, and, mercifully, it was not only a door but also an unlocked door. Garrett backed into the doorway, through to the darkened room beyond. Tyball followed.

Keeper Tyball closed the door behind them, and listened at the door. Garrett meanwhile looked around the shady room, attempting to pierce the darkness. He heard a soft noise, and moved towards it. He laid a hand on the wall near him to guide himself in the shadows, and came across an object attached to the stonework. The object gave way slightly to his hand, and a light flickered on; the object had been a button with the function of a lightswitch. Tyball spun around in alarm, but this was not needed; they were alone in the room, with the exception of a young boy, maybe eight or nine years of age, lying on the floor. It was clear that the child was a homeless pauper, who had somehow found his way inside the burrick-stables without being noticed by the guards, seeking shelter. Tyball glared at Garrett for his clumsiness; this was a complication they could have managed happily without. The boy had witnessed their presence. It was clear, though, that the boy posed no threat to them, and even if he talked about the intruders, all he knew was that two black-clad figures had stumbled into a room and switched the light on.

Garrett looked down at the prone figure. The boy was gaunt and thin, his ribs were visible through the tattered and torn clothing which he wore, and his cheeks were pale, almost lifeless. Almost? Garrett knelt beside the figure, and softly grasped his wrist. The flesh was cold and clammy, and it seemed that the child was dead. After a few seconds, however, Garrett felt a pulse. It was feint, but definitely there. Garrett looked up at Tyball, who was staring down at Garrett, with an expression of horror on his face. Here he saw the perhaps the Keeper Order's most promising Acolyte, knelt beside a small boy, filled with sentiment. He spoke.

"Garrett. You know that we must leave this place. The boy will die; his fate is written. Let destiny play its part in his life, and protect us as we continue ours."

Garrett was usually intimidated by Tyball when he spoke with such a voice. Now however, Garrett saw himself in the thin, starving boy, who would soon die, if not given some food and medical attention, and decided to defy Tyball. Then he looked into the eyes of his mentor. They were cold, icy, but full of life. They burned through his soul and melted his will. The pang of sadness hit the Acolyte, as he realised that there was nothing he could do to help. He remembered the earlier days of his life, when there had been many times of hunger, and he had relied upon his skills as a pickpocket to survive. It would be very unlikely that this boy possessed those skills; it was a miracle that he had managed to find his way this far inside the building without being spotted by the guards.

Garrett rose, silently. He felt a great rage, and only his many hours of lessons in the Keeper philosophy prevented him from launching himself at Tyball, and squeezing the breath from his sinewy throat. He looked once more into the eyes of his master, and this time it was Tyball who felt fear. He soon crushed his fear, however, and spoke a single word: "Come".

The two Keepers left the room, and slipped down the corridor. Garrett felt a bitter hatred of Tyball. He wrestled inside his mind as he struggled to suppress the urge to attack Tyball with his bare hands, but he knew his skills to be insufficient to kill the man, unarmed and fighting against a sword, triumph, and all without alerting the guards. He was behind Tyball, and he raised his left hand. He brought his right hand to a position just above Tyball's right shoulder. It would only take a second to grasp the man's chin, twist it upwards and sidewards, whilst holding the other shoulder in place. Death would be instantaneous, as Tyball's neck would be snapped. No. He withdrew his hand, and sighed. The risk was too great. If he was not fast enough, Tyball would be able to counteract. After trying to kill a Keeper, Garrett knew his life expectancy would decrease drastically. He contained his hatred, and followed.

After a while of slipping through mostly deserted parts of the building, Garrett realised Tyball was not paying attention to what the Acolyte was doing. Garrett's brow furled, as he saw what it was that he should do. His plan went against everything he had been taught by the Keepers. Once done, Garrett would surely have no chance of remaining a part of them, but that no longer mattered to him.

The rebellious youth turned around and ran as quickly as he could, without Tyball hearing his footsteps. Tyball may have been ever derisive of Garrett's skills, but Garrett now felt at one with the shadows, and free in himself. The laws of the Keeper Order no longer governed him. He was a Keeper no longer.

Garrett headed for a door he and Tyball had passed a while ago, bearing a plaque saying "Manager's Office". Rich businessmen usually lived a life of luxury, and there would probably be some food in the office, which he could take to the boy. He arrived there, and cursed as he found the door locked. He listened at the door, and heard a man talking. After a few seconds, it became apparent that he was talking to himself; there was nobody else present.

Garrett realised that the Keeper laws no longer applied to him, and it did not matter if the man knew that there had been an intruder. He stood up, and knocked on the door. The door opened, and a small roundish face appeared. The face quickly had a fist planted into it, and the man, obviously unused to combat, yelped in suprise as he fell backwards. The small man scrambled to his feet, and tottered towards his desk. Garrett spotted a button on it, doubtlessly an alarm. He rushed over to the man and grabbed his arm, twisting it backwards violently whilst holding the back of his neck with the other arm. Garrett's foot intertwined with the leg of the manager, and he toppled them both to the floor. As they fell, Garrett spun around, dislocating the man's shoulder. He would have cried out in pain, had it not been for Garrett's tightening grip on his throat. It is hard for one to scream when one cannot breath. A few seconds later, Garrett released his grasp and let his foe fall to the ground. Dead? Unconscious? Garrett cared little. He remembered the open door, and closed it. He searched the manager. He found a few coins, and a key. He searched the office, and found a few valuables. Eventually, he found what he was looking for: a cupboard containing the manager's dinner, consisting of a small loaf of bread, a piece of cheese, and an apple. He put them all into the ample pockets of his cloak, and turned to leave. He saw a shortsword leaning against the wall, and took it, placing it through his belt, in the absence of a scabbard. He left, and headed back to the room where the boy had been found.

About quarter of an hour later, Garrett was kneeling once more beside the boy. He removed the food from his cloak, and set them down onto the floor. He folded his cloak up, and placed it beneath the boy's head as a pillow. Garrett shook the child's head softly, in an effort to awaken him, so that he might give him the food that he so desperately needed. When no stirring was forthcoming, Garrett realised the truth. He placed his thumb once more to the boy's wrist, to verify his fears. Nothing. No pulse. No life. If the food had arrived sooner, the boy might have lived. Garrett felt like a part of him had died along with the boy. His soul was torn between two emotions: a sense of great sorrow at the loss of the boy the life of whom he had tried to save, and a burning hatred of Tyball, stronger now than ever before. One emotion grew gradually stronger than the other. Garrett took up his cloak, and grasped the hilt of his sword. Tyball was going to pay in blood for this. Garrett wanted nothing more than to see the bleeding beating heart of his former mentor, his former friend, as his sword ripped through his flesh. He stormed out of the room, not bothering even to close the door behind himself.

His pace quickened, it took Garrett only a few minutes to find the main entrance. There were two guards on the inside of a portcullis, and one more outside. Garrett resisted the urge to take out his anger on them, and rush them all at once, because he knew he would not win, and he wanted to live long enough to see Tyball suffer by his hand.

He would however, find it much easier to remove them one by one, than he would to sneak by them. At this moment, he cared nothing for the lives of the guards, only for retribution against Tyball. He lurked in a shadow by the nearest. His sword was raised, blade downwards, and brought violently down upon the back of the man's neck. He let out a cry, and slumped forwards. The other two guards were startled at first, but when they saw the body they started searching. Garrett, sticking to the shadows, darted to the next shadow, to distance himself from the corpse. He turned, and leapt out. The nearest guard lunged at him with his sword, but Garrett brought a foot up to the man's wrist, knocking the weapon from his grasp. The youth brought his own blade swiftly forwards, and cleft the guard's head from his shoulders. The other guardsman looked on in horror, then came to his senses and pressed his attack. He took a large step forwards, and impaled himself on Garrett's advancing sword. Garrett didn't even wait to see if he was dead, but sprinted through the now open portcullis into the night. He would find Tyball and slay him, but for now, he headed off for the half-remembered streets of his upbringing to find a pawnbrokers he once stole from. He could sell the valuables he stole from the manager's office, and strike out alone as an independent thief. From the shadows outside the door to the burrick house, Tyball watched. The laws of the Keepers are strict. One whose heart is clouded by anger or sentiment cannot be a Keeper. However, he believed, Garrett is not angry with the Keepers, but at his mentor. There still might be hope for him. He hurried back to the Keeper Council. Their most promising Acolyte had left them; not for the lesser folly of sentiment, but the greater folly of anger. His heart was clouded, his Balance was lost, but, as Tyball now admitted, his abilities were unmatched.

Go back to Library of Short Tales