I always thought about Ratzer when I was on the job. What would he do? How would he lay it out? Would he go alone or work a team. But in this case, he’d have never taken the job. “Never for the unders. Never owe a demon.”
Still, Gilga-Yar had been a fair patron. He’d softened by the time he’d taken on my contract; gone were the fealty maimings and game-playing. He taught me the bits of the Art that applied to my chosen profession, and I, in turn, rendered the services only my chosen profession could. Namely, I stole for him every now and again, each job putting me closer to my contract expiring and a life of free agency.
The messenger demon in my pocket farted and giggled, the noise of it loud in the otherwise silent forest. I swatted at it. “Quiet.”
I felt its tiny teeth snapping at my fingers. “Master requires messenger returned in fine tip-top shape.”
“Mistress requires silence,” I said, swatting at the pocket hard enough to get a yelp. “And mistress wonders what master wants from this hovel?”
The cabin lay in a forested gully below us, smoke leaking from its solitary chimney. It was the only smoke on the horizon after days of crossing the Eldenwood on foot, and it was hard to imagine anything of value in this quaint log structure far removed from civilization.
“Master wants what master wants,” the demon said. “Master says this may be your last job. It may. It may. It may.”
He’d said that before. I wasn’t going to believe it this time either.
When I spoke it was more for my benefit than my obnoxious companion. “What could he possibly want from here?”
The demon in my pocket said nothing. I lay still and watched the cabin below, hidden from view by the woodling cloak I’d spent a years’ take purchasing for this trip. Under the best conditions the Eldenwood was dangerous, and we were on the edge of howler season.
After another hour, the door opened and a shirtless old man dressed in buckskin trousers stepped onto the porch to gather an armful of firewood. Evening was coming, and the autumn air was crisp. Even at this distance, I saw what I had come for. It was bright on his neck, and though I had no idea what exactly it was, it reeked and shimmered with power that was palpable from where I watched. And not any power I recognized. This was something older even than the Art.
“He wants the amulet,” I said.
The demon snickered. “Want, want, want.”
I sighed and stood, brushing the leaves from me. “Very well. Let’s go fetch it.”
Suddenly, the demon was tooth and claw, tearing at my pocket in its mad scramble to leave. “Master says I go now.”
I was alone before I could protest. With the slightest cough, the air around me flooded with the odor of sulfur as the tiny messenger vanished. “Fantastic,” I said.
I walked down the side of the gully, aware of the knives at my hips and the hands that craved them. Ratzer would never have taken this job. But if he had, he’d have seen the old man and sent in his young apprentice to take what needed taking while he watched and waited.
I approached the cabin and knocked on its door.
The old man didn’t come to the door on my first knock. Or my second. Or my seventh.
I raised my voice. “I know you’re in there. I’m lost and could use some help.”
Silence met my voice at first. Then, I heard the clearing of a voice. “No one lost in the Eldenwood gets this far. Who sent you?”
“No one sent me,” I lied. Then, I opted for a bit of truth. “But you’re right. I’m not lost. I came for you.”
I heard a sigh, then heard the turning of the bolt in its lock. The door opened and the man stood before me now. Up close, he was older than I realized, his hair thin and white as it fell over his shoulders. His chest was narrow beneath muscular shoulders, and hanging in the center of a gay thatch of hair, the crystalline medallion guttered and smoldered with its power. One of the first tricks Gilga-Yar had taught me was how to smell the Art and its distant cousins. This was something rarer, and the possibilities frightened me.
The old man watched, his sharp blue eyes narrow at the sight of me. It seemed he was waiting for something, and since the only thing that truly made me uncomfortable were awkward and stretched out silences, I spoke into it. “I am Shayna Westbrook. Of the Clancy Westbrook Run.”
He continued to wait, his eyes widening. I mistook it as familiarity with my name and smiled “You know me then?”
The old man shook his head slowly and leaned forward, sniffing at me with a raised eyebrow. “But you know me or surely you wouldn’t have come so far to find me. Who told you how to find me?” He sighed again, then pushed past me with a deliberate stride. “I require you to tell me. And to follow.”
He said it with resignation, and I had no interest in telling him that a second-rate demon had sent me here without knowing what I was to steal and whom I was to steal it from. But I fell in behind him as he moved off the porch and around back toward the shed.
He opened it and withdrew a shovel and a knife. “It doesn’t matter. Take these.”
I thought about hitting him and taking what Gilga-Yar was after. But this old man had me curious, and my patron’s lack of forthrightness with me made me want all the more to know what was going on. So I took the shovel and the knife. “What am I doing with these?”
He regarded me with an intensity that made me uncomfortable. “First,” he said, “you’ll walk north away from the house until you find the other graves. Then, you’ll dig a grave. And after, if you truly love me and wish to serve me, you will climb into the grave and cut your throat.”
I handed them back to him. “I don’t think so.”
He didn’t take them. Instead, he staggered back, and for a moment I thought he might drop to the ground. “It’s you,” he said. His face flushed. “Finally, it’s you.”
Now it was my turn to step back. “Yes,” I said. “It’s me.” I felt something stirring in my stomach and didn’t like it at all. “Who are you?”
His eyes glistened with tears of what seemed like gratitude or wonder. “Who am I?” He chuckled. “Surely you know. I am Ansylus of Erok.”
In that moment I knew I’d been profoundly buggered by a god. Because even though it was impossible, it wasn’t: Ansylus of Erok, Ansylus the Conqueror, Ansylus the Enslaver. It had taken half the League of Wizards to bring him down two thousand years ago. It had brought about the treaty with the demons and restored the Art to them.
So this, I thought, is where they’d hidden him.
My eyes went back to the crystalline amulet around his neck. Because of what he wore and the things people still whispered about it, though it was long thought lost. “The Heart of Eylon,” I whispered.
“Aye,” Ansylus said. “And you are here to free me of it at long last.”
Buggered by a god. Buggered by Eylon himself, the god of love and loyalty. A tiny bit of divine heart lay buried beneath the crystal that focused it outward, bending those who beheld it to adore with abandon and obey to the utmost zig and zag.
Only it didn’t seem to work on me. And because of that, and because Ansylus the Enslaver now wept tears of joy before me, I was thinking Ratzer had been right all along about working for the unders.
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