Jameson sat across the table from the man in black, sizing him up. He didn't like the man in black. He didn't like the situation he found himself in. Jameson Quille was not a man accustomed to dependence on others. He had built a fortune from nothing but his own hard work and his own genius.
"You never answered my question," the man in black said finally.
Jameson wasn't listening. He was too busy staring at him; this mysterious business partner he had acquired.
Crowley was the man's name; or rather, that was the name he had told Jameson. Crowley was a small but imposing man, not in physical strength, but in the ability he had to look into a person, to search out and exploit a weakness. He was a snake in the fields of honest men. Jameson didn't like that.
"Quille!" Crowley's voice was sharp; it shook Jameson from his thoughts.
"Three thousand. I will give you three thousand gold pieces. Is that enough?"
Crowley smiled cynically. "I think it just might."
"Good. Then, in that case, please... Leave now. I would rather not see you until you have... Until the Job is done." Crowley withdrew without a word.
Once again alone, Jameson allowed himself to briefly play through the recent discussion and the events leading up to it.
Jameson Quille was well respected throughout Dayport. He was the sole owner of Quille Restorations, a vast enterprise making its mark by restoring the antique areas of Dayport that had been destroyed at the end of the rather pretentious reign of Karras, Mechanist figurehead and undeniable lunatic. With his help, the Mechanists had modernized much of the city, something that the general populace, in hindsight, found to be a great injustice.
The people of Dayport were a fickle group. The Nobles were content to listen to any crackpot with a good oration and too many followers. They stood by meekly as the Hammers push law and order to the extreme, and when Karras came along they were only too happy to let him talk and talk about how great He was and how much they should love The Builder. Truth be told, the citizenry of Dayport could care less what collection plate they dropped their week's earnings into, so long as the religious sect kept them entertained and kept the streets clean.
Of course, Quille thought all along that the modernization of Dayport was a bad idea. Sure, there was no problem in adding a few of those Security Eye things in the bank where he was an account holder, but he didn't want them to get carried away. And that's what they did. That's what ALL zealots do. When Karras suggested that he let one of those "servants" live in his house, he laughed. He told Karras that he would never board anything like that. He knew Karras; he had spoken with him more than once; he didn't like Karras. Karras, he thought, was the type of person who ALWAYS had a hidden agenda.
Quille was right.
One night, for no reason that anyone could see, Karras' fortress and temple, Soulforge, was sealed. No one left. In the blink of an eye the Mighty Karras, and all of his High Ideals, had vanished. Thanks to his "hidden agenda," Jameson had decided.
He took that opportunity to buy up some small Hammerite Cathedrals that the mechanists had converted. Quille Restorations was small then, a fledgling company - Jameson still did most of the construction work himself. He had painstakingly restored two temples. Dayport was thrilled, the Nobles funded the purchase of a few more small plots.
Quille's lucky break, though, came when Lord Rothchild bought one of the temples, at a very hefty profit. He probably saw it as a conversation piece, or a "little bit of history." The Rothchilds had always been in competition with a neighboring family, the Bumblesons. The families had feuded for years, but what had started out as a bloody brawl eventually degenerated into petty squabbling and a constant game of "Top This." So, obviously, the Bumblesons wouldn't be outdone by Fredrick Juniper Rothchild and his antique temple; they bought one of their own from Quille Restorations, again, at a hefty profit.
So began the series of mad spending, buying up the restored properties that Jameson Quille had to offer. The Nobles, fickle as they were, were happy, and Jameson was rich.
Quille had another purpose, though. Yes, he bought and sold properties for money, but there was something else he was looking for. He had been in the poor areas of town, growing up, and stayed there until only very recently. In the slums, stories and myths fly like demented birds. A child growing up will hear thousands of stories on those streets. He happened upon one, though, that would change his life.
When he was still a young man, he was told a story about a rogue demon-hunter named Grant who found a powerful weapon wanted, theoretically, by the Trickster (the God of the Woods) himself. The weapon, which Jameson only knew as "The Eye," was described only vaguely, no matter who told what version of the story. It seemed that no one knew what it was, or what it could do. He knew he wanted it, though.
Jameson had followed trails. He bought temples where he knew he would find Hammerite texts, and when he found them, he searched them all for any mention of "The Eye." Jumping from temple to temple, he was led finally to the Lost City. After much bickering and several donations to a small but influential group of Hammers, he began making the Lost City what it once was.
He was glad to rid the area of the ugly Mechanist machinery, and if it led him to The Eye, all the better.
Deep inside the caves of the Lost City, he found a scroll that told him, in no uncertain terms, where he could find the eye. It looked as though the scroll was new, and had upset the serene nothingness of the City only recently, but Quille's excitement got the better of him, and he took the scroll, reading it when he finally had a moment of safety from prying eyes.
What it said did not please him.
The Eye, the scroll explained, was hidden deep inside Keeper Vaults.
Jameson knew precious little about the Keepers. His first instinct was that they were yet another group of overzealous madmen. All he had heard of them was from other people on the streets, and none of them could be sure what they themselves knew.
To his understanding, the Keepers were heavy-handed cloaked prophets. They lived out of public view simply because society wanted to forget about them. They were a superfluous sect of Dayport. He also knew that they were not to be trifled with. He had heard many stories of how dangerous the Keepers were.
Jameson would not try to get The Eye himself.
When he decided that he could not buy The Eye, he hired Crowley. Crowely claimed to be a thief of some skill. He knew all about the Keepers. He told Quille that the Keepers were, indeed very dangerous, but were not a worry for him. He took the Job.
Jameson relaxed in his chair. By morning it would be over. By morning he would have completed one of the great Quests of his life. He lit his pipe, sipped a glass of brandy, and in that particularly clichéd "Noble" state, fell asleep.
He treaded carefully through the streets of Dayport. It was dark; the patrolmen were out on their rounds. They didn't like the look of him anymore than that worm Quille did. But Crowley was used to people not trusting him. He was a thief, after all. It came with the territory.
The soft hum of the electric lights above him drowned out the soft pad of his leather boots. His cloak fit snugly around him; in shadows he practically vanished.
Crowley knew who the Keepers were. Every thief knew who the Keepers were. Most rogue thieves feared them. Crowley didn't. He wasn't impressed by their silence. What good was a group of Master Thieves if they never DID anything? In all the years that Crowley had been prowling the alleyways, he had never seen a Keeper. He had never seen the results of Keeper activity, either. They might as well have not existed to him.
Every town had Keepers, though. Crowley had grown up in the nearby town of West Fountain, and there were keepers there. It was a smaller grouping, but they were there. When Crowley was seventeen, they invited him into their ranks. He declined the invitation.
He had told them that he wasn't a follower, and that he had learned everything he needed on his own.
Although Crowley had never been inside of the halls of a Keeper compound, he knew what to expect: lots of dim hallways, lit sporadically by lonely torches. He had heard stories of the vast Keeper libraries, and planned on taking a book or two for himself, as keepsakes.
He approached the gate to the Keeper facility without seeing a single guard. "Typical," he thought to himself, "Keepers never have enough brute force." He jumped the gate soundlessly, landing on the grass beyond, and made his way to an iron door straight ahead of him.
Taking care not to dawdle too long in the glow of torchlight, he began to pick at the lock of the door. In a few scant moments, the lock clicked into place, and the door swung open, revealing a long and dark stairway.
Crowley smiled, threw caution to the wind, and stepped inside.
Keeper Orland was not surprised. After all this time, mankind hadn't learned yet that they should never pry into the secrets of the occult. Orland never saw himself as 'occult' in any way, and he wasn't. He was just a man. However, he had the sacred duty of maintaining the vast expanses of books in the Keeper's Library that pertained to prophecy. There were many in the Library.
Tonight, though, he had a different task.
His Master, a talented man placed in charge of the Library itself and known only as Dark, asked him to intercept an intruder. An odd assignment, to be sure, but Dark was far from an orthodox Librarian. He was very introspective, older, and one of few Keepers who was injured. Orland had become used to his daily mundane tasks, and Dark's new directives gave him a start.
"Here?" Orland had asked.
"Yes," Dark replied. "Here." He always said things matter-of-factly. "A man by the name of Crowley will be coming in to... Attempt... To take The Eye."
"He is being paid, Keeper Orland. Money is this man's only loyalty."
"Oh," Orland said, rather bitterly, "One of THOSE." Keeper Orland had seen those types of men before. Rogue demons governed only by their own greed. Orland remembered when, many years ago, he had tried to convince another to work for something other than money. He remembered when the Acolyte Garrett so blindly turned his eye to the cause of keeping Balance, and turned his back on them at their gravest hour only to unwittingly help them anyway. As it was written. He remembered Garrett taking the book of prophecy that pertained to him. Garrett had not been happy to see it. He and the book were not seen since. As it was written.
"We have allowed this man to enter the compound," Dark continued. "We have allowed him to walk right through our doors. We want him to. We have a message for his... Employer. You are to give him this message." Dark laid a scroll down before Orland.
Orland was still thinking about Garrett, and the prophecies: "Destiny and danger are still focused on the One..."
"Orland, clear your mind. This is important work."
"...The Renegade who is both brethren and betrayer."
The shadows moved swiftly. Dark struck Orland across the face sharply. Dark was getting on in age, but his hand stung coldly. Shocked, Orland returned from his memories.
"When I speak to you, you will listen!" Dark said.
"Yes, Master Dark." Orland did not want to upset Dark, for though he was a high-ranking Keeper, Dark was still his Master. The Keepers have strict laws about respect. Orland had yet to break a law in his long stay with them, and did not intend to now.
Orland picked up the scroll and looked at Dark expectantly. "You may not read it." Dark said.
"Where is he now?"
"He is still above."
Above the small room that Orland stayed in when not attending to his miniscule section of the massive Keeper Library, an iron door slammed.
Silent alarms went off in Crowley's mind as soon as the door slammed on his heels. Had he been caught? Already? When he heard no scuffling, he continued on.
There were no lights down the stairway. Crowley thrust his hands to his front and sides, to feel his way. His feet felt for every subsequent step downward. After several excruciating minutes of such travel, he reached what seemed to be the bottom of the stairway. And another locked iron door.
Someone had knocked over his wine glass. That's all that Jameson knew. His window was open; the curtains were fluttering half-heartedly in the wind. He blinked twice and shifted in his armchair, about to settle back into his seat when someone spoke.
"You don't know what you're doing," it said. The voice was behind him.
"The Eye. You don't know what it is. You don't know what it means. Don't take it."
"I don't know what you are talking about!"
"Oh you don't? Then you didn't just send Crowley out after it, into the Keeper's Den? Into the very mouth of the Lion?"
The dark figure walked around Jameson, to be face to face with him. He was an older man, wearing an eye patch, and clad head to toe in black with a hooded cloak. He slowly, deliberately, reached down and snatched a golden goblet from Jameson's table. "This isn't usually my style," he said, "but I'll make an exception tonight.
"You know," he continued, "I took the eye once. Then THEY took MY eye. A fair trade I suppose, looking back on it. The eye had the ability to destroy the world. More or less, anyway. Given the chance, I would never have set foot there. Remember that."
The stranger slipped the goblet under his cloak, then pulled out something else: a sphere. He threw it at the ground in front of him.
Jameson was blinded for a few minutes. When he could see again, the stranger was gone, and in place of his goblet was a note. Carefully, almost fearfully and certainly reverently, he opened the note and began to read.
When he was finished, he folded it, slid it neatly into his pocket, and went back to sleep.
Crowley picked this lock, too. He was good at picking locks, thankfully. Few doors could withstand the persistent claw of his tools. He was suddenly very thankful for that fact.
He was still wary. What if someone had heard that door slam? The Keepers are not men of action, but they aren't stupid, either. If they had heard a sound as loud as that, even in their sleep, someone would be here to investigate it. Best to move quickly.
The second iron door swung open noiselessly. The hallway beyond was lit intermittently with small torches. Keepers don't use much light in the lower levels. Crowley knew this from experience.
When he was younger, he snuck into the Keeper Library of West Fountain. Below that building were the same sad torches, the same dust, and the same old scholars. Not a challenge for a Master Thief like him, he thought.
He crept silently through the hallway to his right, his hand guided by the jagged brick of the wall. Within a matter of moments, he found himself at the entrance to the Grand Library. He was aghast, to say the least. Who wouldn't be? The room was immense. Thousands, if not millions, of books sat on shelves that covered every free space. Scattered amidst the shelves, small desks were lit by soft lamps.
The place appeared to be deserted, so Crowley pulled an impressive volume from a shelf at random, sat at a desk, and began to read.
The most promising acolyte left us,
Not for the lesser folly of sentiment,
But the greater folly of anger.
His heart was clouded.
His balance was lost.
But his abilities were unmatched.
Even then, we knew to watch him most carefully.
He would leave, gone for years
Into the shadows to find himself.
When he was ready, he would return.
He would be an unwitting helper
To the greatest cause of Balance.
Behind him came soft footsteps, and soft murmurs. He made his way to a nearby set of shadows, leaving the open book behind him. Within a few moments, two elderly men past by him, no more than a foot from where he had been sitting. One man, taller, and with long gray hair braided down his back stopped at the desk. He paused for a moment, considering the book, and then he picked it up and replaced it on the shelf.
The pair left Crowley alone again, talking of nothing of importance, or so it would seem. When all was clear, the thief emerged from the shadows.
He slipped another leather-bound book soundlessly off the shelf. Opening it to a page marked by an age-yellowed ribbon, he began to read:
My hand is copper.
My brow is lead.
Suffer me in a red patina,
Swept along in a molten flow
To a sad eternity.
Lift up my heavy head,
Unnaturally laden with hideous jewels,
Once silken tresses,
That I might see the sky once more.
My stride interrupted.
My thoughts untimed.
My voice is corrupted.
My tongue unwind.
My pulse is mercurial
Thickened, it slows,
Thus sickened, it slows.
My tears are become drops of silver
That shatter the crystalline fern.
I plead the wind to sweep us away.
My alabastrine limbs, useless and tired,
My carnelian heart, beatless and mired.
I pick the gilded apple from the iron tree.
I wipe the rust from my brow.
The earth rejects me, foul and changed,
The wind refuses me, unsightly and maimed.
Destiny and danger are still focused on the One
The renegade who is both brethren and betrayer.
Beware the spider,
He weaves both labyrinth and lair.
My heart is ceases.
My breath undrawn.
My eyes forever focused
On the sanguine metal dawn.
Crowley closed the book. He hated Keeper prophecy. It was the type of thing that made no sense until it happened, when it became too late to do any good. Still, he couldn't help himself. His natural desire for knowledge, as well as reckless curiousity, overcame him. He opened the book to another, unmarked, place.
In these dead gardens,
Would not a soldier make;
But suffer me, instead
To walk the Thiefsie Path
And bend the Thiefsie Bow
Until the Dark Night
Shares it's riches.
I prowl serenely
In perfect shadow
And perfect silence
Toward my goal:
The Ancient Item,
The Woodsie Weapon,
The Unjust Thing.
I paint the black with Chaos:
My only trail the rustle of winds,
And soft shift of lights.
Challenge not my ways,
My ways are not yours.
Your temples are not mine.
See me not as enemy,
This persona non grata;
I am the essential darkness
In your otherwise blinding light.
Were it not for me,
You would be but memories;
Your hammers forever placid;
Your haunted souls, at last, at peace.
He paused thoughtfully. He briefly thought he sensed a staggering irony, but brushed the feeling aside. There was work to be done, and he didn't have time to doubt any of it. He slipped the book into a pouch under his cloak, and continued on. Best to move quickly. Keep the book for later.
From shadow to shadow he jumped, crossing the library, into another lonely hallway. Since it was late, most of the Keepers were asleep. Crowley was able to move without much worry.
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