adventures in dysthymia

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Book, Beast, Burglar, a story

The Book, the Beast and the Burglar

a short-story by Stephen Brooke ©2016

In a red leather book — what? No, I don't know what beast supplied the leather — as I said, in a red leather book in the loftiest tower of Hirstel, a city of lofty towers, were written the names of all the demon of the lower planes. There, well-warded, it lay in the highest room of that tower, rising above the palace of Piras Tindeval, Prince-Sorcerer. 

Hirstel, where all men are wizards, and all the cats, and most of the dogs, as well, was ruled over by Tindeval. His book of power had much to do with that. He kept it in a casket of silver, with the sign of Sebuchax thereon in gold. When the book was needed, the prince climbed the long stair of his tower and coming into the room — with due propitiation to the demon Qu'orthseth — he took it from its casket and read the names therein. Thus did he remain sovereign in the City of Sorcerers.

There was a young beggar, Im, who owned only castoff and broken spells. He was undoubtedly the weakest wizard within the five city walls of Hirstel, unless one counts some of the dogs and several of the rats. Rodents have never taken well to magic, yet some must attempt it.

His poverty was no fault of his own, but could be traced to his father, who had lost his only truly valuable enchantment gambling with a small and treacherous feline. There is little doubt that a cheating spell was employed in their game of three-penny, but it was impossible to prove. Moreover, the corrupt judges of Hirstel ever favored the winner, however he came by his success. So, the unfortunate man lost his post as garbage collector, as he no longer had a demon helper to carry any and all refuse to the far side of the moon, and passed away soon after, leaving his son without inheritance nor means of livelihood.

But Im was a bright lad, and an ambitious one. He meant to go to the top.

And looking up, one evening, he saw the top — the high tower room of Piras Tindeval. What did he have to lose? He would only starve if he remained without magic in a city of magic, and about Hirstel lay the empty sands of the desert, vast and reputably impassable.

What wards might lie above, what dangers? He and all of Hirstel knew the high chamber of the Prince-Sorcerer had its guardian. Yet Im began ascending, finding easy hand and footholds on the deeply carved shaft, decorated with the forms of the thousand and fourteen Demons of Droga. Now and again, Im found himself face to face with the horrifying visage of one of these, carved in the lustrous black marble, or was forced to place his hand on some repulsive element of their anatomy. Above blazed the bright stars of ever-clear skies. He could see the silvered dunes that surrounded the city walls from this vantage. What lay beyond?

And then he pulled himself stealthily through a narrow but unbarred window. There was no guard to be seen, nothing but a plain table of some dark, polished wood and, on that table, a silver chest. Carefully, quietly, he approached it and removed the book bound in red leather that he found within.

Im had but opened it when he felt a massive hand on his shoulder. “Hold,” came a deep groan of a voice. The creature — a demon, obviously — stood a head taller than the tallest man he had ever seen, and was allover red, a deep wine-red. He turned to face it. What else was there to do?

Its naked body was smooth, featureless, with no obvious musculature nor reproductive organs. Where a man might have a face, was a flat, blank expanse of shining red. Somewhat like a well-polished shield, he thought. “I am Qu'orthseth.” The words came like the wind-driven sand. “I regret that I must slay you, young man.”

Im considered leaping from the window. Surely dashing his brains out on the cobblestones far below would be preferable to being dismembered by this demon. He had heard tales of bits and pieces of would-be thieves being scattered about the base of the tower.

“You couldn't look the other way and let me slip out, could you?” It didn't hurt to ask.

Qu'orthseth slowly shook his head. “I may not. The duty laid upon me is to destroy all those who enter this tower room of Piras Tindeval. To do otherwise is to break my oath.”

“O, mighty Demon,” said Im, “slay me if you must. First, though,” he inquired, “will you answer my questions? If you do intend to take my life, then surely you are fulfilling your promise. You don't think I can escape you?”

“This is true. Of course I can kill you anytime so there is no hurry. I must admit, conversation is somewhat lacking in this room. The boss rarely comes up here and when he does, he doesn't have time to talk.”

“How,” wondered the youngster, “did he get you here in the first place?”

The monstrous form hung its head. Having no face, its expressions were limited. “He rescued me from prison,” Qu'orthseth admitted, “and demon prison is a very bad place indeed. Far worse than being stuck in a lonely tower room for a couple centuries. As long as I fulfill my oath here, I can remain. The moment I might break it —” Fortunately, the demon had shoulders, so it added to its repertoire of expressions by shrugging. “Well, I'll be immediately whisked back to torment in my native hell.”

“Ah. And your oath is to protect the book?” Im had hopes of finding a loophole.

“Not exactly. The wording in these contracts must be quite precise in laying out what is expected on each side. For himself, Piras promises to keep me free from my prison as long as I follow my own vow of slaying anyone — and the wording makes it clear that 'anyone' includes small animals — who enters this room. Other than the prince himself, naturally.
“I have had to knock off a few cats over the years,” the great red creature admitted, with definite regret in his impossibly deep voice. “And I like cats. People, not so much.”

Yes, yes, they were cat burglars. May we get back to the story?

Hmm, that idea wouldn't work, then. If only Qu'orthseth were tied to the book rather than the tower, he might have come up with a trick to earn his freedom. Im looked again to the window.

The demon caught his intention. “Don't think of leaping. I could catch you before you reached the ground and then I would take you apart, piece by piece, without further delay. With luck, I could make it last a while to relieve my boredom.

“But,” he rumbled on, “conversing with you is preferable. Behave and I shall break your neck quickly, dismembering you later as a warning to others.”

Im shrugged, in apparent resignation. “Would it hurt if I looked into the book?” he asked. “I might as well know what it is I am dying for.”

“It is permitted,” spoke the demon. “Be aware that no spells in the book of my master would work against me. I can not be destroyed nor turned from my duty, even by the most powerful magic of this world.” But maybe of his own world, thought Im. That wouldn't do him any good. Unless he could call up a demon of greater power?

The grimoire still lay on the dark slab before him. Im leafed through it, not hurrying. He was relieved to see it was written in straight-forward Zikem, which he and everyone else in Hirstel could readily read. “Are there many powerful demons in your realm?” he asked of Qu'orthseth.

Was that low rhythmic sound, something alike to distant thunder over the desert , a chuckle? “Very many. Know that they may not harm me nor prevent my actions as long as I am bound here by my geas.”

That made sense. Otherwise, the demon police would have come and swept him back to his cell. Or wherever they kept their prisoners. But demons could do other things. Hmm, there was named Sebuchax, the mighty archfiend who had built this tower for the Prince-Sorcerer. What could be built could be —

Destroyed! He put his mind around the proper spell, getting it well fixed, and then called out, “Sebuchax —” Well, I won't give you the rest of the words for fear of blasting your souls. Then who would listen to my stories? The words of the spell, of course, were only for focus; it is the mind that really does the work and Im had a mind that was up to the task.

He tucked the thick book under his arm and waited. If he were dashed to death as the edifice fell, so be it, but Im expected a different outcome. Surely enough, the great red demon caught him up and carried him to a nearby roof. Im was not quite certain how Qu'orthseth accomplished this, as he had no wings, but was willing to let that question wait.

“That was unexpected,” rumbled his companion.

“The tower no longer stands, nor does the room you guarded exist. Your duty there is ended.”

“But I am still obligated to destroy you, boy.” As Im had assumed and expected.

“And what will happen when you do?”

This query Qu'orthseth pondered for a few moments. He then slowly answered, “I would be instantly whisked back to my own world and prison.”

“Then you must keep me alive, mustn't you? It is your only way to remain in this world.”

What was the creature thinking? wondered Im, as its blank visage regarded him for a rather long time. “I could blast your mind and store you away somewhere,” it stated, at last, “leaving that grimoire behind.” He looked at the book Im held. “My master would be less likely to seek me then. He cares only for the safety of his spell-book.”

Im guessed at the reason for the demon's apparent reluctance. “And how long could you keep me alive?”

“Not long enough. That sort of thing can go wrong, too, and then I would be — elsewhere.”

“Ah. With this,” Im held up the leather-bound volume, “I could do much for both of us. And,” he went on, “prolong my life greatly.” Wasn't Piras supposedly well over a thousand?

Qu'orthseth nodded. “The book means nothing to me. I was to guard the room, not what was in it.” From their high perch, he looked out over the desert. “Does that sand go on forever?” he asked. “I know little of your world, in truth.”

“There's only one way to find out,” replied Im. “So let us put as much distance between ourselves and the prince as quickly as we can.”
“Agreed,” said the demon, grasping the young burglar and rising into the air. “Westward?” he asked.

“As good a direction as any,” said Im.

A little story that sat mainly as an idea in my notes for a long time. Sat down and finished it off today --- not a finished, polished piece, of course, but a decent draft. I think it could be one of the "Tales of Borm" that I mention in the Donzalo's Destiny books and may tuck it into a future novel. Oh, and I'm not in love with that title!

Addendum: Only a day later, this tale---which I admitted was early draft-y---has been fairly extensively edited and polished. Much closer to a finished work now but, of course, I won't post that!

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