“The Graduation Bar,” Master Alben said without a trace of humor. I looked up again with dread. It was a bar all right, but thinner than any they had asked me to walk across before.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got no trouble with balance beams. Walking over precarious surfaces was fundamental to what the Keepers taught us. I learned to walk on the summits of pointed rooftops, in rafters, through the scaffoldings of half-built buildings, and on the edges of sewers. They taught me how to adjust the positions of my toes to give me the best position on sharp edges, slippery surfaces, and on crumbling stone. Most of all, they taught me how to be silent on all those surfaces. Silence was key to everything.
“At one end is a ladder,” Alben continued with an overly dramatic tone that set my teeth on edge, “that you can climb to reach it. On the other end is the door.”
Let me guess, I thought, “the Graduation Door” behind which is the “Graduation Hallway” lit by “Graduation Torches.” The pompous way the Masters talked always irritated me. No, lets face it, I was scared and what made it worse was I knew I was scared.
The bar (excuse me, Bar) was thirty feet long and a quarter of an inch in diameter, raised about thirty feet above the smooth, stone floor. I couldn’t figure out how they could get a bar strong enough to span the distance and still support human weight. Unless…
Unless it was iron, which would be slippery, which would be suicide to cross.
“Once you reach the door, open it, and enter, you will no longer be ‘Young Garrett.’ Or ‘Student Garrett.’ Or even ‘Adept Garrett.’ Once you walk through that door, you will be given your cloak and become ‘Master Garrett.’ ‘Master Keeper Garrett.’”
I looked from the hard stone floor to the bar again.
“Or maybe ‘Master Cripple Garrett,’” I said. Master Alben didn’t respond, didn’t even twitch a muscle. The Masters never laughed at anything. I guess walking over that bar would scare the humor out of anyone.
“There is more,” he said, and walked over to a chest at the side of the room near the ornate door we entered through. My heart would have sunk lower, but there was no place further down in my stomach for it to go.
He opened the chest. Inside were two pieces of stone, one perfectly square and the other irregular, and several small, velvet pouches that were tied shut at the top.
“This,” he said gesturing at the first, grey stone, “is The Builder. Carefully hewn to exact proportions through hours of painstaking labor. With this stone and others like it, you could build a wall, or a house, or a castle. But it is heavy, and sharp around the edges.
“This,” he said gesturing at the second, mossy stone, “is The Trickster. Smaller, lighter, but crumbling and slippery. This rock comes from a forest by a stream where nature controls all and there are few people to be seen.”
He took a pace back and looked at me with that grave face he always wore in his lectures on city history.
“The stones, as you well know, represent the two opposing forces in the city: the Hammers and the Pagans. If left to their own devices, these two would start a war that could destroy everything and everyone. The Keepers stand between them. The Keepers look at both sides with an equal gaze and choose which they must support. That is your task now.
“Choose your affiliation. Pick which stone is the right one to help you cross the Bar and take it with you.”
I looked at the stones in the chest again. I tried closing one eye and then the other to figure out what he meant. What is an “equal gaze” anyway?
“In these pouches are three phials of vitalix.” All the students just called them ‘healing potions.’ Trust the Keepers to find a complicated way to say everything. “You may use them at your discretion. Let me warn you, though, that when the last phial is gone, you will get no more. You will have failed the test and your healing will be done by traditional means. Vitalix is only for Masters.”
Which was his way of saying they would lock me away in a library somewhere deciphering old runes and copying dusty texts for the Master Keepers. That would explain why all the librarians either had limps or missing arms or breathed in ragged gasps. No way that was going to happen. I’d sooner go back to picking pockets in the lower district.
“I will await you, and your choice, at the other end.” And he was gone, closing the door behind him.
Damn. I had been hoping he’d go through the other door so I could see how he got there.
* * * * *
I picked up the stones, first the one representing The Builder and then the other representing The Trickster, and weighed them in my hands. The Builder was definitely heavier and sharper. The Trickster was slippery, yes, but not enough to make it hard to hold. Looked like I was going with The Trickster; you’d have to be nuts to drag the other one over that drop.
I tucked The Trickster under one arm and used the other to climb the ladder. At the top I looked over the edge of the platform (it’s always better to look, no matter what people tell you) down to the ground. The smooth stone shone the moonlight from the windows back at me. I shifted the weight of the rock from one hand to the next, feeling the weight and the damp softness of the moss. The best choice was probably to keep it under one arm and counterbalance it with my body. Holding it with one arm allowed me to keep the other one free to keep outstretched and reduce the impact any misstep would make on my center of gravity.
With the stone in my right armpit (my left is my weaker balancing side and I wanted it free) I put my right foot out on the bar. It was as slippery and narrow as I feared and, worse, it was cold. My foot held, however, as I put my weight on it. I had half expected it to slide off into space. I had half hoped it would since I still had one foot on the platform. I swallowed. My full weight now on my right foot, I lifted the left off the platform, the sound of my heart in my head as I raised it over space and onto the bar. It held; I relaxed, felt a slight tremor in my hips, stiffened and resolved not to relax any more. I moved the right foot over the expanse—
I knew I was in trouble right away. I had gotten used to the feel of my own body and the weight from The Trickster was just too much. Usually, I’m balancing on a bar that is forgiving enough to let me compensate for any mistake. Usually, I’m not carrying a ten-pound rock. Usually, I’m not thirty feet from the floor.
When you study to be a Keeper, you learn all sorts of useful skills. I learned how to bind my equipment not to make any noise. I learned what cloths are best to wear when hiding (here’s a hint: silk is shiny and will reflect light even if it’s dyed black). I also learned to count the seconds I was in freefall so I could instantly know how far I fell before I hit the ground. When I had almost counted to three, I heard a sickening crunch. My right arm and shoulder snapped instantly as I fell onto it. The mossy stone I was carrying broke several of my ribs and, by the taste of blood and difficulty I had breathing, punctured my right lung. I screamed but refused to black out.
It’s almost always fatal to close your eyes and lie still, no matter how much you want to. I got up. I walked the twenty paces across the room to the chest and leaned against it. My vision was darkening and my hands trembled more violently than I can describe but I got the drawstrings of a pouch open and drained a bottle.
Vitalix is wonderful stuff. One of these days, I have to learn how to make it. A familiar warmth filled me and the sharp pains slowly faded away. The bottle clattered to the floor as I leaned on the chest with both hands and tried not to vomit. Throwing up healing potion was contrary to the point of drinking it in the first place, after all.
After the nausea passed, I opened my eyes and saw The Builder stone. There had to be some trick to this. They wouldn’t have made the task impossible. It had to come down to symbolism. The Keepers were as full of symbolism as Lord Bafford was of fat. Hell, the Keepers were full of three Baffords worth of symbolism. The trick was figuring out what this particular symbol was.
I stared at the lines of the stone.
* * * * *
I had met The Builder before. Not the unseen god, of course, but his disciples on Earth, the Hammers. Hammerites ran most of the city with an iron fist. Sometimes it was literally with iron fists, but usually it was with iron hammers. I was pretty lucky and pretty fast and always had managed to get away from them when things turned bad.
Who was I kidding? Things were always bad. Even with my skills, everything I managed to steal had to go to food. Hard times had fallen on the city and hit pickpockets the worst. Still, I was good enough to have made some money. Looking back now, the two gold coins I had buried under the old wooden crate I called home wasn’t much of a savings. Still, in the shantytown where I lived, it was more than most people had. It was enough.
It was enough for Iris. Iris was a pickpocket like me. Not like me, really, because she never quite had the knack for picking the right target, but she had eyes like river stones and hair the color of the sun. You can forgive a lot of skill for eyes and hair. We would sit in the crate and huddle against each other for warmth. We didn’t talk much, but we didn’t need to say anything.
Then, one day, she made a grab at the wrong time. I was at the other end of the square following some potential targets, so I didn’t see that she was in plain view of a troop of Hammers that had just come around the corner. I only saw what had happened after she screamed. By then it was too late, there were six of them, only one of me, and they dragged her off by the wrists.
Now, of course, things would have been different. Now, I could use a flash bomb to blind them before they grabbed her. Now, I could leave gas mines in the alleyway they dragged her through. Now, I could shoot arrows into their backs as they heated their brands. Now, I could do something while they burned the mark of the hammer into her palms. But then… Back then I had nothing but my hands and all I could do was press them to my ears so I wouldn’t hear her scream as I crouched in the shadows and watched them work.
I took her home and bandaged her hands, but it was obvious that she would never be able to use them again. Picking pockets is delicate and fast work; scar tissue makes that difficult, especially if it runs the length of your palm, especially if your hands can’t stop shaking. I began taking bigger risks because I had to steal for two. Soon those two gold coins had been dug up and spent and we were cold and hungry all the time.
Then the infection set in. Healing potions are “for Masters only” because they are rare and expensive. I know, because I searched the entire city for some. One bottle would have saved her, but there was none. Perhaps there was, but back then I didn’t know where to look and it wasn’t on the streets.
One night, Iris wasn’t warm any more. I would have carried her outside of the city, but I had gone without food so long I just didn’t have the strength. The next morning I left her in an open grave in the Hammerite cemetery before the gravediggers woke up. Sometimes I wonder what they did with her body after they found her.
Oh, yes, I knew The Builder.
* * * * *
So, if this test was symbolic as well as physical, I had to think my way through it. The Keepers must have known about my hatred for the Hammers. I never tried to keep my feelings secret. Perhaps they were trying to tell me that, to attain balance, I needed to learn to swallow my hatreds. The Trickster was a myth, an empty story that people told to make themselves believe there was something more powerful than the Hammerites. But the Hammers were real. That meant The Builder was real.
I lifted the stone and closed my eyes as I shifted it from one hand to another. It was a burden, yes, but my feet were pushed harder into the ground. Being pushed harder downward meant that I would press down harder against the bar and be more secure on it. It was worth a try; I shouldered the stone and began the climb up.
This time I held the stone against my stomach with both hands as I put my right foot out onto the bar. There was no way I could compensate for the weight if I held it under one arm like I had before. The weight definitely pushed me down against the bar more firmly. I spread my toes out and grasped it between them. I swung my left foot out and onto the bar. So far, so good. Then the other foot. Two more steps and I was too far out to go back. Another step and I paused, the sweat had dripped into my eyes and I had to blink to clear them. Another two steps and I looked up at the door. I was almost there, but as I looked at it, it tilted to one side and fell away. Then I saw the ceiling. Then the floor coming at me fast, so fast. Then the wall. Then darkness as I felt my legs give way under me.
I collapsed to the ground and, instinctively, rolled onto my back to absorb the impact. There was a dull thunk of stone on stone and I looked to see The Builder land where I had been. The corner of it chipped slightly and left a dent filled with grey powder in the stone floor. Pain filled my eyes again and I realized I wouldn’t be able to limp over to the chest again; the bones of both my legs were protruding in ragged splinters through my clothing.
Dragging myself to the chest on my hands might have taken an hour. There’s no way I can be sure.
When I had finished drinking the healing potion and the bones withdrew back into my legs, I sat on the ground and regarded the two stones where they had fallen. I was good. I was the best student they ever had. There was no way I lacked the skill needed to make it to the door. I just had to think of something.
I looked at the mossy stone. The Trickster was a story. The Pagans who worshipped him were weak and obviously deluded. They gave up modern conveniences and medicine to live in the forests to be eaten alive by wild animals and die of children’s maladies.
I turned to the square stone. The Builder was probably a myth, but his people were powerful and cruel. The cities twisted under their grip and the harder they tightened it, the more people would twist out from under them. No wonder crime was rampant wherever they enforced justice; who wouldn’t want to strike out at others when your life was empty of joy?
I turned back to The Trickster and then back again to The Builder. I squinted my eyes at them. I slumped to the floor, turned my head sideways and stared. How did you balance one of those?
I sat up with a start. You couldn’t. You had to balance both of them.
I picked up the mossy stone, carried it under my right arm to the top of the ladder and left it at the top. I came down again and picked up the square stone and carried it under my left arm to the top. When I came down again, I took the last vitalix potion and put it against the soft part of my side with the cloth bunched around it to keep it from breaking if I fell.
At the top of the ladder I picked up both the stones. I had to curl the square stone under my right arm and hold it close to my body or I would drop it. To balance it, I held the mossy stone out away from me with my left arm.
The bar pressed hard against my feet as I stepped onto it. The first three steps were shaky, but I grew used to the weight and the awkward position and the next four steps grew increasingly solid. My left arm cramped halfway across and I had to concentrate to stay focused. I dared to look up at the door again; this time it didn’t fall away. Four more steps. Two more. The pain became unbearable and my arm shook. One more step. And I was at the door. It was made of simple brown wood with a brass handle.
Handle. The hot sweat covering me turned cold. With my hands full, how could I turn the handle? I couldn’t even move my arms, let alone turn a door handle with a hand full of rock. Plus, reaching out with either stone would throw my balance off and I would fall again. I still had the potion of course. If I survived the fall I could try again and become a hunchbacked scribe in a dark room somewhere.
“No. Stop. Concentrate. Think of what the symbolism is supposed to mean.” I said out loud. I could call through the door to ask for help, but asking for help wasn’t the Keeper way. I could try to kick the door open, but I would lose my balance. Think! The Keeper and The Builder got me here. By balancing each against the other, I was able to get to the door. The meaning behind that was apparent, but what do you do when you get to the door?
You open it. I dropped both stones to the floor, careful to toss The Builder away as I dropped it so it wouldn’t hit the Graduation Bar on the way down. Before I heard them hit the floor I grabbed at the handle with both hands and turned. The door opened inward and I fell onto the carpeted hallway within.
I looked up, heart beating wildly in my ears and saw down the hallway to the doors. The same doors I had entered the Keeper’s service through all those years ago. How long had it been since I had seen the outside? A shadow stepped away from the wall and moved toward me, holding out a dark cloak.
“Welcome, Master Garrett.” It said. “Now you are a Keeper. Come, there is work to be done.”
* * * * *
The night was warm and damp around me. The four of us were near the edge of the city, by a stream that fed fresh water into the sewers and eventually came out the other end of town, dark and putrid. We crouched in a dark alcove near the simple gates of Augustine’s mansion. Keeper Dronsed unrolled a map scroll in the middle of our circle of dark cloaks.
“Augustine is one of the most prominent Pagans in the city. His political opposition to the new Hammerite cathedral is well known. What is not so well known, is that the Hammers have paid his guards to leave his mansion unguarded tonight.” Dronsed said. “Normally, we would have intercepted the payment before it reached the Augustine’s men and the matter would have ended there, but the Hammers managed to get it to them without our notice. Now we have to stop the Hammers directly.”
I looked at the map of the mansion. It sat in the center of a walled, overgrown garden. Plenty of places a small garrison could sneak in, and plenty of places to hide.
“We are expecting a group of six, carrying crossbows along with the standard war hammers. They must be stopped before they reach Augustine in his bedchamber, here.” The Keeper pointed to a room on the third floor.
“We will each take a different approach over the walls and find dark corners in the garden where we will wait. Most likely, the Hammers will come through the garden and enter the mansion through the servants quarters here.” He pointed to a door on the first floor. “The servants are unarmed and won’t be able to form much of a resistance. After the Hammerites are have finished killing them, we move.”
Something twisted in my stomach.
“The Hammers will feel they have crushed all opposition. They will know that Augustine couldn’t sleep through the killings and will rush to his bedchambers to kill him before he escapes. At that moment, the Hammerites will be tired and drop their guard and we will strike.”
“You disapprove of the plan, Master Garrett,” the Keeper to the left of me said. I’m not good at hiding my emotions.
“Isn’t there a way of stopping the Hammers before they get to the servants?” As I asked it, I saw the look that crossed the other Keeper’s faces. You are not a true Keeper, it said, balance compassion with necessity.
“We could attack earlier,” Master Marken replied, “but with less chance of success and more casualties among our group. There isn’t much that even a group of Master Keepers can do in direct conflict against a battalion of fully-armored Hammers.
“Here is your equipment,” Dronsed said, distributing packs without waiting for any other objections. “Along with your standard complement of arrows, you each have one rope arrow and three flash bombs. I wish there was more, but it is what we were allotted. Good luck, brothers.” And they were gone. I slid the pack onto my back, and gently touched the healing potion still tucked against my side to reassure myself it was still there.
I headed towards the north wall, keeping to the shadows. There was no telling how far away the Hammers were, so I didn’t want to take any chances on being seen. Luckily, there was a tree branch growing over the wall.
I shot my rope arrow into the branch, and climbed it. Halfway up, I jumped to the wall and mantled over it. No chance of getting the rope back without giving myself away. I had to hope that nobody noticed it dangling from the tree. I dropped down to the soft grass below, hurting my knees in the process and slipped into a shadow cast by a nearby shed. And waited.
After a few hours the Hammers came into view.
* * * * *
It must have taken an hour for the screams and the sound of hammers on stone and hammers on wood and hammers on softer things to die away. Then there was silence and the fading noise of metal-shod feet. I waited a few heartbeats and began to move toward the closed door.
And the door opened. I froze in place and crouched, hoping the emerging Hammer wouldn’t notice me, but I was exposed. The man, fearsome in his red armor (was it red from blood?) stepped outside and closed the door behind him. I could draw my sword, but the distance between us was too great, and as I well knew, I was no match for a fully-armored Hammer. Running back to the shadows would easily attract his attention.
There was the sound of a straining bowstring in the tree above me and the Hammer went down with a soft thud, an arrow protruding from his throat. I ran forward instinctively and moved the Hammer’s body to the shadows. When I looked up, all the Keepers were at the doorway.
Keeper Dronsed pulled something out of his cloak and handed it to me. It was my rope arrow, removed from the tree limb and rewound. I could see the look in his eyes: You are not a true Keeper.
“The way is clear,” Keeper Marken said, and we went in.
* * * * *
The Hammers must have been unfamiliar with the layout of the mansion because they split up. I followed one group through the east hallway towards the ballroom, while the more experienced Keepers followed the others. It was relatively safe to assume that the group of Hammerites I was following wouldn’t be finding Augustine’s bedchambers. That was fine by me, I’d rather be taking out people who were confused and lost instead of those who were in a blood rage and trying to knock down someone’s door. I caught up with them, they were opening doorways, hoping to find the way to Augustine.
Idiots, I thought. Everyone knows that wealthy men’s bedchambers are always on upper floors so they can look out over the city while they eat in bed. Still, dumb people can be dangerous, and dumb people who are stumbling around, trying to find something are hard to sneak up on.
I moved to the edge of the shadows towards the center of the hall to stay on the carpet. At this range, silent was just as important as unseen. The two men split up as one continued down the hallway and the other opened another door. Now was my chance. If I killed the one opening the door, he might make a noise the other would hear, so I would have to do it quietly. I stepped softly around behind him and swung my blackjack at the back of his head. He hardly made a sound as I grabbed him before he hit the ground and began dragging him with my hands under his arms back down the hallway, my own footsteps sounding loud and unnatural with the weight.
Not my footsteps. There was a third Hammerite. I dropped the body and rolled over it, drawing my sword. A war hammer’s head landed on the unconscious Hammerite’s chest, crushing it.
“Die, worm!” the Hammerite shouted at me, probably even more enraged by the thought that he had killed his comrade than by my presence. The second blow came before I could get to my feet.
“Always parry a sword with the hilt end of your blade. That way, you have more leverage,” my fencing trainer told me once. But what do you do when you are fighting someone with an enormous metal hammer? Nobody ever told me about that one.
I managed to get to my feet as the next blow landed. My arms strained with the effort and the sword squealed in protest. I dodged back and the Hammerite squealed with pain and dropped his weapon as an arrow appeared in his shoulder. I looked down the hall past him and saw Keeper Dronsed standing there with his bow drawn. The Hammerite screamed his rage and charged the Keeper before he could fit another arrow. The Hammerite crashed headlong into Dronsed, making him drop his bow.
I threw my flash bomb at them and blinked away the bright light before my eyes. The Hammer staggered toward me. Dronsed was holding his side and crouching against the wall of the hallway, trying to stay in the darkness.
I dove at the Hammerite, sword extended and felt a soft impact. I pushed the sword in until it hit something hard and I stopped. The dead man fell to the floor. I had never killed before. Now I could kill like the Keepers.
I went to Dronsed and saw blood between his fingers where he was holding his side.
“Knives,” he said, “They had knives instead of crossbows.” He sighed with pain. “Leave me, I am too deeply wounded and there is one more Hammer in here. Stop him. Balance must be maintained.”
I removed the bottle of vitalix from where I had left it by my side and held it out to him.
“Shut up and drink this. It’s left over from my graduation earlier this evening.”
He stared at me dumbly and took it.
“You truly are a Keeper,” he said, and drank it. I almost smiled. My fellow Keeper stood up.
“Come, we have work to do.” He said, and we went after the third Hammer.
The ballroom was empty. We went back through the hallway, checking all the rooms when Dronsed stopped me. He reached to the wall and pushed against a lamp. It twisted sideways and a hidden door opened in the wall. I felt a pang of fear, secret passages always went somewhere important. Like a bedchamber. We hurried in.
* * * * *
The bedroom was furnished with yellow plush couches and an enormous canopied bed. It made a sick contrast to the light green chintz wallpaper. Augustine was still in his bed (how he could sleep through his servants screaming was a mystery to me) with the red velvet blankets held up to his face. It did nothing to hide the look of terror in his eyes as the Hammer approached him, weapon extended before him.
“Now, weed,” the Hammerite said, “your insolence will end. The Builder will spit you from his mouth into the pool of fire. Our cathedral shall be built in the heart of the city and we shall grind your bones into lime for its foundations.”
I charged into the room, but there was no need. An arrow sprouted from the back of the Hammer’s neck and he collapsed. I looked back at Dronsed.
“Leave the body,” he said, “we must go before sunrise.”
I nodded and headed back towards the passageway, following him.
“Wait!” Augustine squeaked from his bed. He started to get up. “Wait, who are you?”
I turned back to him.
“We are friends you never knew you had and may never have again.” Now I could talk like a Keeper. Augustine stood at the side of the bed, pulling the covers with him.
“At least tell me who you are.” He said in that commanding tone only the wealthy had, stepping toward us, pulling the covers around him.
The covers slid off the bed.
Off a form in the bed.
Off the form of a child.
Off what used to be a child.
What used to be part of a child.
Balance is necessary. Came the voice in my head. You are a Keeper now. You respect the balance. Without balance the world would collapse. I could talk like a Keeper. I could kill like a Keeper.
I was not a Keeper.
The sword was in my hand. I was across the room. The bedclothes were thrown to the floor. Augustine’s neck sprayed crimson. There was a pain in the back of my head. I saw sparks like the streetlamps. The world grew dim. I fell on my back. Dronsed was looking down at me, his blackjack drawn.
* * * * *
I stood in the graduation room again, the few things I could steal strapped to my back to keep them quiet. It was the way they had taught me to pack.
I looked up at the metal bar and the door at the end of it. The climb to the top of the ladder was quick. It had to be; they would know I was missing soon.
With nothing in my hands, I put my right foot on the bar, feeling no weight holding me down. I looked back at the lid of the chest, thirty feet below me.
With nothing in my hands I stepped out onto the bar and across it to the door.
With nothing to drop, I quietly opened the door, slipped out into the hallway, and out the front door I had entered once, so many years ago.
I was not a Keeper.
I was Garrett.
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