The Focus Stone
Sharic, the initiate guildsman of the Eskenberg Law Guild, hurried through the dirty streets, sparing a furtive glance for possible pursuers. In the light of the full moon, rubbish on the streets combined with the lingering results of a downpour to create a jeweled effect on the cobbled road. He stuck to the shadows, which was not difficult in this area, the worst for thievery. There were streetlamps, but owing to the neglect of the guilds, many were in ill repair. The result was an occasional light, but many streets were completely dark. In the moonlight, the faces of buildings were transformed again, stark against the subtle tones of the ground. These streets he avoided, preferring the back alleyways, dancing from one pool of inky blackness to the next.
It seemed Sharic had been in a hurry all his life, keeping up with the demands of his training. Coupled with his private dealings, most of the day and night were occupied. His mornings were spent in contemplation of philosophy. The afternoons were spent with the guilds; each apprentice had to learn a craft as well as the arts he trained in.
As he reached an intersection, Sharic slowed. Beads of sweat had formed on a forehead that had not even seen twenty-five years, though looked twice that age from the worry lines that creased it. His breathing came in rapid gasps, and he forced himself to walk slowly, forced his breathing to slow, and forced an unconcerned air of privacy about himself. The jackals of this area were likely to smell fear as well as any dog. A confident man had an instant advantage over one who let fear control his wits. His only weapon was a focus stone. This was an egg-shaped piece of rare, golden marble that was said to have been formed by the hands of Gods and polished by one of the orders, though he suspected it was the orders that made them. However, they served their purpose. An apprentice could focus his talents on the stone and they would magnify. The stone’s only other use might be as a bludgeoning weapon. He could take someone by surprise, but anyone out at this time of night would have at least a dagger. Although stone blunted dagger in a game he played as a child, he knew that it was of no defense in the adult world. The back alleys suited his purpose, and Sharic was soon hidden again. The overhanging first floors of the older buildings prevented all but the thinnest slivers of moonlight from reaching the ground. Coupled with the fact that there were no street torches - a torch here would more than likely set a house on fire than provide any decent light - it made ideal conditions for his dance of obscurity. Part of him was bemused with all the events occurring in his recent life. Why was he out here alone when he could have been concluding some shady deal in a warm tavern on the other side of town? Few were about at this time of night. Those who had passed him had been too busy keeping to themselves to worry about what an apprentice mage was doing here. It would never occur to them that a mage could be as good a thief as anybody else. Still, he told himself, it would never do to be worrying about others. The last person he had seen was along one of the major roads passing east. Just the presence of someone had frightened him almost enough to wet his britches. There were none about in this part of town - the sensible all barricaded in their homes at this time of night.
He shivered. “Why did I suddenly change my mind?" he asked himself. He had stolen some books at the request of a client. "Client" his bitter bark emitted in just the slightest of coughs. In truth his client was one who had caught him stealing, and blackmailed him into stealing yet more instead of turning him over to the authorities. He was caught in so many snares he felt that rabbits had it easy. His accustomed stress had deeply affected him tonight. He was on his way to deliver the desired tome to his client when he had been struck dumb. He had suddenly cursed himself for even thinking of delivering the books to this man. He had realized with time that the book was one desired by the master of Raessa, far to the North, and that he could make a handsome profit from the transaction should he but miss out the middleman, but there was a member of his own guild that could use this book so much more.
Without a second thought for himself, or the money he would make out of this night's work, Sharic started to make his way toward him. There was no chance of anyone finding him in these deserted alleyways, he thought. The docks on the river were a maze of back alleyways. The labyrinth many had called it, for people had been known to enter, and re-emerge weeks later, never able to accurately recall where they had wandered, and yet he knew the layout.
It was during this moment of self-congratulation that he heard a noise. As he whirled to look his robes twisted and caught his legs. Remembering to reach out to cushion his fall, he dropped the bundle of books and they tumbled into an unlit alleyway. As the overhanging buildings denied the pure touch of the moon to the street, the offending alleyway was absolutely black. Nothing could penetrate that darkness, and even if Sharic had the wits about him to conjure the simplest of light spells, he felt that it would not have helped. The moment had passed and now the fear, the clarity of purpose, contained him wholly. He did not even notice his scraped shins or the cut on his right hand where he had fallen on glass. He crawled on his hands and knees, searching amongst rubbish for the books he had so desperately held on to for the past half a day. He was so close; it was unthinkable that he could lose them now. Though it was dark in the alley, it was also very warm. It was the first whole moon since midsummer. On such a night it was said that a breeze could reveal secrets to the initiated. There was such a breeze now. Easing its way through the maze of alleyways, its sibilant breath could whisper to those who knew how to listen. It was said that it was the voice of those who were lost, entreating the living to remember them. An initiate of one of the orders could accept, even understand the reasons behind the legends, but the common man knew only what he could see and touch. To them it brought peace to many of their homes, carrying the scent of summer and the promise of a good harvest. The message the breeze brought him was one of presence. Sending a shiver down his back, he felt the ebb of cold, a dire portent. He was not alone in this alley. Someone or something was with him, and he didn't like the fact that he had no idea what accompanied him in this black maze. His thoughts went back to the books. Perhaps if he could retrieve them and be on his way, whatever was in that alley would not be disturbed. He scrabbled in the rubbish.
He decided then and there that this was not the life for him. After he delivered the books to the proper recipient he would give up this life in the shadows. No more would he skulk in search of collectibles for a faceless man who was fortunate to catch him at it. He would pass his initiateship and take vows with one of the orders to live out a life in peace and dedication to a God.
He moved deeper into the alley, convinced the books could not be far. In the pitch black he stumbled, and very nearly fell down, a hole. It felt perfectly round, a palm’s-width across, with symbols etched into the cobbles under his hand. It intrigued him that someone had found the time to make a ritual sacrifice site in the middle of the labyrinth. As he was wondering this he heard scratching noises. He thought he saw a flicker of light to his left, and momentarily dismissed such a thought. Then he saw the beginnings of a glow and realised the scratching had actually been the hidden striking of iron on flint. Fear turned to blind panic as he understood why he was not alone in this dread place. A torch spluttered into life, and he looked up to see three figures staring down at him. One carried a wide spear with a razor’s edge head, and more of the ritual sacrifice runes along its length. His stomach dropped as he comprehended what was occurring. His skin felt clammy and cold and his hands trembled.
The figures moved toward him. He noted that the spear had a crosspiece about halfway down its length. He had read that a certain tribe of wildmen used these crosspiece spears to impale their enemies. It was also widely known that such a people traded with the town, and came far out of their way to do so. Why would they be after him? He had never had any dealings with them. His gaze travelled up. Flat, unemotional faces. These he surmised were just the foot soldiers. From the look of them they bore no personal malice toward him. Their shadowed faces unremarkable to everyday eyes. The only things to mark them were the almost black pupils, and the small crescent moon tattooed on their throats. Fear paralysed him. This was the mark of guild assassins.
His only hope was to buy his way out of this situation. His hands fumbled for the half purse at his belt. He had been struck dumb for the second time in a day and the best he could manage whilst holding out the gold at arm’s length was a few trembling mumbles. The leader examined the purse and stowed it, a transaction that would lead to his freedom. As he relaxed, the two others moved to either side of him, not making a sound. He heard wood scraping against stone behind him, and his momentary relief was replaced with full-blown fear. He let out a cry, a scream of pure terror. Two of the men took him by the arms. He could feel the point of the spear at his back, almost feel the thirst the point had for his blood. He realised he was tensing himself for the spear to be thrust into his back and gazed up at the face of the one who had taken his gold. "Why?"
Unemotional, devoid of all sentiment, the man returned his gaze. “My thanks for the gold.” The dark figure planted a heavy kick on his chest. At the same time the two others hoisted the spear. As he felt it enter his chest, Sharic's scream of terror became a bloodcurdling yell that seemed to go on forever.
Many who heard it would remember that scream for the rest of their lives, but none would act on it that night. What did not involve them could not harm them, or so they thought. To many, it would be a case of just another mug killed in the night. More fool him for being here on his own, many would think. They would be momentarily repulsed by the sight, and then continue skulking about their business in the labyrinth.
In the shadows at the edge of the street a book lay out of sight, untouched by dirt and water, covered by rapidly dissolving parchments, a couple of soggy scrolls bound in red leather, and the scribbled journals of an apprentice. Would that somebody had checked the alley, and found the corpse with a hand stretched towards the shadows, the fate of a people could have been changed forever.
* * *
Old man Wise shuffled across the floor of the office. Worn by life and long past his prime he had nevertheless done well for himself. He felt secure in his enterprise as one of the town's foremost moneylenders. Half the town was in debt to him. Not the untidy, bailiff-bullying fiscal debt that most would assume, but a debt of gratitude. His various enterprises had kept many a family from living in the gutter. His generosity was unequalled. He was not one of those to be suckered into a dishonest deal; most people who came to him with money problems knew that they would stand a chance only if they were genuine. He had the uncanny ability to see beyond any mistruth he happened upon. More fortunate for his generous nature was the fact that most who owed him money found ways to pay him back. He had one rule for them. Any money must be earned through fair means, not foul. A good day's work was not beyond anyone, and he led by example. At a time in his life where his contemporaries had long retired to their country mansions, enjoying the fruits of their labour, he soldiered on with a dogged tenacity.