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||You are on Week 285
Every week we will be starting a new Story Telling competition - with great prizes! The current prize is 2000 NP, plus a rare item!!! This is how it works...
We start a story and you have to write the next few paragraphs. We will select the best submissions every day and put it on the site, and then you have to write the next one, all the way until the story finishes. Got it? Well, submit your paragraphs below!
Story Two Hundred Eighty Five Ends August 11
Silus blinked. "I'm sorry," the Aisha began slowly, "but I believe I misunderstood. I thought I heard you say that your 'perfect plan' failed?"
The Meerca standing in front of him blushed and stared down at the ground, twisting a foot into the dirt like an ashamed youngster. "Yes," he squeaked. "That's what I said."
"Perfect plans don't fail," Silus said, his voice dangerously low.
"Sometimes they do," the Meerca piped up hopefully. "Like this time."
"Perfect plans don't fail, because when they do, THEY AREN'T PERFECT ANYMORE!" the Aisha bellowed.
"But it was perfect!" the Meerca protested. "I just... well, I just forgot about the janitor."
"GET OUT!" the Aisha shouted, pointing a black-gloved paw at the tent entrance. The frightened Meerca immediately fled into the night.
"Perhaps, sir," suggested a Skeith calmly from the side, "you could boost morale a bit by letting them know what this is all about. It's hard for thieves to steal something when they don't even know its purpose."
"Mind your own business, Goloth," Silus replied irritably. "I'm the head of this ragged bunch of bandits, not you. If I recall correctly, you ruined our last mission by STEPPING IN ICE CREAM!"
The Skeith muttered something under his breath about the difficulty of seeing such a small object beneath his bulk and the exceptionally slippery properties of melting frozen foods.
"I can't help the fact that I'm surrounded by incompetent fools," Silus continued, "but sooner or later I will find what it is that I'm looking for. And, for all your sakes, you'd better hope that it's sooner..."
Author: Lost Ice Cream|
Date: Aug 4th
..."Which it might very well be," a low voice suddenly said.
Silus jumped, then forced himself to look calm. Then he became angry. "Guards!" he snapped, "who let this fellow in without my permission?"
"They cannot hear you," the newcomer said in that strange, soft, emotionless voice that drifted through the air like the whisper of silk against stone. "Nobody outside this tent can."
Silus concealed his alarm. "And what exactly are YOU doing here?" he growled.
The creature was entirely unfazed by the Aisha's bristling fur and furious tone. "I have a proposition for you."
"I'm listening," Silus said cautiously, "but it had better be good."
There was a moment of silence, and Silus used it to evaluate his uninvited guest. The travel-worn black robe and hood that concealed its face and form was something of a cliche; but the only visible part of its countenance, the gleaming pair of eyes, was not. On the surface, they were ordinary enough: the whites were as pure as cold stars flashing in the firmament, while the irises were so black that they blended in with the pupil. Big, cartoon-character eyes.
But even at first glance it was clear that they were far more than that. Deep and dark as Jhudora's secrets, piercing as a sword, and harder to read than a sheet of unmarked paper, they gazed steadily into Silus' eyes, a quiet invasion that flowed past every barrier like dark water pouring through a barbed-wire fence. Silus struggled to meet that gaze; then, finally pretending to busy himself with studying a small gem that he pulled from his pocket, he tore his eyes away.
"I know what it is you seek," the creature said quietly, and Silus narrowed his eyes.
"Why don't you tell me your name, and show your face? And why are you interested in this little search of mine?"
The robed figure gave no answer.
Nodding to Goloth, Silus said, "Unmask him."
The Skeith stepped forward, and the creature made no move until Goloth reached for the hood. Then suddenly, with movements swifter than the eye could follow, it seized the Skeith and spun him around; and before either Goloth or Silus could react it had forced the minion onto his knees and was twisting the offending arm behind the Skeith's back with a cold and merciless strength. "Do not try that again," it hissed quietly; then as Goloth whimpered in pain it released him.
"In answer to your questions: my name and my face are my own, and I show them to whom I please. As for my motives, they are no doubt purer than yours. But I will work alongside you, for a time. Will you have my aid or not?"...
Date: Aug 7th
... Silus did not answer for several long moments. The events of the past few minutes seemed like they had been borrowed from some tale of mystery and intrigue in which he was the clueless anti-hero. A mysterious, robed figure appears out of nowhere and offers its assistance in a theft attempt which has proved to be unusually difficult for the would-be larcenist? Well, yes, this would all be very entertaining if he was sitting in front of a warm fire and sipping hot cocoa whilst reading the tale out of a large, leather-bound book, but the fact of the matter was that the Aisha had been placed in an uncomfortable position, and he didn’t like it one bit. If there was one thing he couldn’t stand, it was feeling as though he was being forced to play someone else’s game.
That wasn’t the only reason he was delaying his response, however. Despite the situation’s rather storylike properties, he had to keep in mind that this had the potential to become an unpleasant, perhaps dangerous situation for himself and his scraggly band. There were far more exotic and deadly things than bandits roaming the dunes of the Lost Desert after nightfall. Was the stranger simply an eccentric, brains addled by the daytime heat, or could Silus be dealing with a power greater than that of anything he had encountered before?
These two very valid points were, however, overshadowed by one important thing...
“The Tome of Kishie,” came the voice of the robed figure, adopting something that was almost a condescending drawl, in contrast to its previously silky tones; Silus managed to hide his seething frustration at being effectively held captive by this quiet yet unmistakably menacing creature. “Truly a magnificent artifact, but an odd target for theft, wouldn’t you say?” The Aisha was completely still, his eyes fixed upon a point just left of his toes. As the light from the tent’s lone candle reflected off of his glossy shadow fur, he looked almost like a solemn statue carved from obsidian. “After all, the average black market dealer would have no idea of the item’s worth; its contents and even its existence are unknown to most. Could you have been hired by some rich and unscrupulous rare book collector, perhaps?” The figure’s voice carried the hint of a smirk, and after a carefully timed pause, answered its own question. “Somehow, I doubt it.”
“But your motives are not my business, I suppose, any more than my name and face are yours. Still, I wonder-” the figure took one small step forward- “whether the fate of your parents might not have something to do with your desire for the Tome?”
At once, Silus bristled, and his pale yellow eyes flared wide open in anger as he hissed. “State your terms or begone!” With a twitch, razor-sharp claws erupted from the ends of his fingers... but the stranger simply laughed.
“Such a temper! Very well, I will do as you wish. The Tome is currently being held inside the Palace under heavy guard; you know this, of course. To cut to the chase, here is what I offer: I’ll get you in and out of the Palace’s walls without detection. You’ll be able to slip in, nick your precious book, and be out again in no time, and no one will be the wiser.”
As it spoke, the creature raised one cloaked arm to expose its right hand in a demanding gesture. Silus shuddered involuntarily. The skin of the hand was as pale as the moon, almost translucent; from the fingers protruded sharp nails, at least ten centimetres each in length. The hand flexed expectantly, awaiting an answer.
“However, there is something that I must ask you to do for me in return...”
Date: Aug 7th
..."And what could you possibly want?" Silus demanded, his ears twining around one another in agitation. But his fear betrayed him, rose up from his fur in an invisible halo that haunted the air like the bitter aroma of a rose withering within the deepest recesses of his iron-barred heart. For he had forged those bars himself, hate and fear and forgetting pounded into an unchangeable mold by Time's unforgiving hammer. What prowled between them... well, cages are made both for keeping things in, and for keeping the world out.
Be it best to let sleeping hearts lie.
A soft current of air hissed from within the darkened hood, as though the creature's nostrils had dilated to take in the stench of Silus's unease. Like the moon, its voice seeped through the cracks in the Aisha's defense, spilling an icy light across the vacant stage within his thoughts. He flinched away, but it followed him patiently between the background sets, biding its time until the curtain fell. It spoke docilely. "We all want things."
The chilly desert sand below the tent floor swelled between his paws, frothy waves reflecting the startling chill that was the desert's night. "You are a phantom," Silus continued rather shakily. Though he squeezed his eyes shut, the ballonish cartoon eyes bobbed into his mind, hovering high over an audience of puppets. "You are a myth, a memory, a relic from a time when people knew well enough to avoid you. Now they look at you and see the background, a tree, a thunderstorm. Those who seek you would mistake you for a mirage, or call a mirage the real you, and address it as such. Now what is it a thing like you could possibly require?"
"There is no question of requiring," the creature purred with a sound of an glacier shattering, and Silus noticed without surprise that Goloth had long slunk from the tent, a long trail of sand grains remaining where his tail had been tucked against his sizable belly. "You said it yourself; I am not a creature such as yourself, dragged at by the nagging demons of Power, Riches, and such other nonsense that your kind puts on pedestals." It chuckled, and the night air seemed to freeze within the confines of the tent, transforming Silus into nothing more than a stained-glass character, trapped within a window to be stored away, or sold, or broken.
"I do as I wish. May you someday have the wisdom to do the same." A clothen fold materialized at its wrist as its right arm shifted ever so slightly, and the spell vanished. For many long nights after, the Aisha would awake to find himself violently shaking his head, clearing it of two-dimensional dreamings, and voices pleading from painted glass.
"What I desire." Speared on a moondagger nail, a scrap of withered paper suddenly made itself apparent, though Silus could see no pockets on the coarse outline of the robe. With a careless movement that made the candle flame in the corner cry out and disappear, the lengthy finger flicked the paper towards Silus. It bounced against the weathered leather floor, coming to rest against one of the Aisha's sandals.
Gradually, keeping his gaze fixed on the bemused obsidian phantom before him, he bent to quickly snatch up the scrap of paper. There was no light in the room now but the moonlight that filtered through a tear in the tent's side, but that was enough.
"The Horn of Meiril," Sirus breathed, unconsciously stroking the rough drawing as though it contained the true Horn. "But... it's a myth. Like you. Every cadet in the Thieves Guild is told about it, just in case, but it doesn't exist."
The hooded creatured smiled a smile that no eyes but its own could see, though the fur on Sirus's spine prickled. "It does not exist in the same way that I do not exist?"
Terrified and angered beyond all sort of sense, Sirus was still a king among thieves, and this nature now took him by the neck. He stroked his chin thoughtfully, appraising the drawing. "Now that I think of it, I have heard stories... but I must have been dreaming, or speaking of something else." The anger flooded through Sirus yet again, unquelled, even spurred by the flat eyes that made him hunch low to the ground in surpressed panic. "But this is impossible! We don't know where to look, how to look-" He examined a few dog-eared words scribbled in the corner of the paper. "And in three days? This is absurd." Shaking his head in fake decisiveness, his paws still trembling with the knowledge that this was not a being you could refuse, he tucked the paper into his pocket. "I won't."
If anything, the moonlight amplified the horror of its smile, for now Silus could not keep himself from seeing the bulbous, unmatching teeth that shimmered greenish-grey against a too-red tongue. "You will."
Quivering, the Aisha managed valliantly, "W-Why s-should I? I... I can find the Tome on my own."
"Your parents are long out of your reach." This statement made Silus's head jerk upwards, as though yanked by a marionette's unseen string. The cartoon eyes loomed over him, the invisible puppet master hiding in the wood works. "But you had a sister."
His reponse was fierce, like the flow of blood to a newly-opened wound. "She's gone too."
Its lips closed over its grinning teeth, and the moon went out. "But unlike your parents, she is not out of reach. I can tell you where she is..."
Date: Aug 8th
..."I know where she is," snapped Silus, though there was a tremor in his tone. "I know well where she is!"
He turned away, so the Stranger would not see his quivering features. Fear, anger, sorrow... He forced them back within the confines of his barred heart, attempting to brave himself against his thoughts. I do not need him to tell me what I already know... She is gone. Just as they are. Just as they all are.
"Forgive me," the Stranger replied smoothly. "Perhaps I was not clear. I know where she is, exactly where she is - and I can retrieve her for you."
A flicker of hope burned within Silus, though he forced himself to swallow it; the aisha felt the phantoms of a past far behind him, shapes and colors and sounds stirring in their imprisonment within the depths of thought and feeling. "Retrieve her? It... It is impossible."
The stranger came closer, but Silus turned his back on him - perhaps a fatal error, though his fear was slowly being gnawed away by a certain emotion of frantic urgency. A chance - that was what he had now. A chance to reclaim that which was lost to him...
"Yes, I know why you need the Tome of Kishie," The Stranger's voice was soothing now, though the fur on the back of Silus's neck was starting to prickle, a defensive, subconscious reaction - the Aisha felt suitably chilled to his bones. "But it is only half of what you need... the Horn of Meiril will aid you - you need but to find it for me -"
"It is impossible! There is nowhere to look for it!" Hysterical now, Silus whirled around - but the Stranger was gone. The wind swirled through the tent opening, as his memories broke free and began to attack.
Shutting his eyes tightly, he embraced them for a moment; the Stranger knew what had happened... known he had ran... If only this was truth.... He would have to take the chance. There was no choice for it... He had promised he would come back for them... And if his parents were out of his reach, and there was still a chance his sister wasn't - and that the Tome of Kishie could not save her alone... If what he had been taught was truth, than the Horn of Meiril could not be contained in his hands - but perhaps this Stranger could hold the horn, help him...
He was suddenly aware, however, of something clutched in his gloved hand; his eyes flashed open and at once the scroll was stretched open in his hands, eyes pouring anxiously over it - a map. Not entirely sure why, something built up within the aisha, forcing him to laugh, a laugh devoid of cheer or thrill.
Like a story, he thought, Everything seems to fall together so easily... And rolling the map as attentively as though it were made of gold, he turned and marched to the entrance of the tent, and held back the flap, and grabbed the arm of one of his guards.
"Call Talla and Goloth to me," he muttered. "Do not speak to anyone else."
The guard paused uncertainly, then nodded, leaving Silus to retreat into his tent for a few precious moments of silence, alone with his mad thoughts...
Date: Aug 8th
...Ever since Silus had become a thief, he had been on the bad side of things. He was a seasoned criminal, a cutthroat mastermind. However, as he spent time alone in the tent, his suppressed memories began to trickle back. He had been good once, as most thieves were. But it was far too late to turn back. He knew this, but the doubts managed to sneak into the back of his mind.
Is doing an evil deed, assisted and encouraged by an evil spirit, in order to accomplish good, in itself evil? It echoed in his mind. He had been a thief too long to turn back, but what about his sister? The essence of patience and goodness, even if she was saved, would she return to him? It was like a sharp wedge being driven into his heart, opening it painfully with every passing second.
Goloth and Talla crept meekly into the room. "You called for us, master?" questioned Talla. She was a Techo of the darkest hue, draped with glittering beads and silk. Goloth hung nervously behind her.
"Yes," said Silus, clearing his mind to focus on the task at hand. "This is the chance I have been waiting for. This map," he showed them the scroll, "will allow us to steal the tome with almost no risk involved."
"Amazing," Talla breathed. "And what must we do?"
"You," Silus said, "must use every skill you have to turn me into..." he paused, shuddering, "...into the form of a phantom."
Goloth whimpered, but was silenced by an icy stare from Silus. Talla had not been present in the tent earlier, so she knew nothing of the terrible but profitable encounter. "Do you wish for costume alone, or manner as well?" she asked.
Silus's eyes narrowed. "Everything," he whispered. "I will describe to you in detail everything I must be. The success of my large scale operation depends on it."
Talla smiled confidently, expecting a large payout. Goloth tried to shrink behind her, but his enormity could not be hidden. Silus stood still. His keen mind was racing. "I will not be played like a puppet," he murmured. "I always come out on top..."
Date: Aug 9th
...He thought about his early days as a thief. A simple thief he had been, stealing for food in the bustling marketplace of Sakhmet. His clothing had been drenched with tears and sweat. Then, gangs had attacked him, mercilessly. It was then that he had become the cutthroat that he was now. It was also then that he learned of the Tome of Kishie.
"The Tome of Kishie," a Ruki had hissed in a hurried whisper behind a caravan in his bustling home city, "can be found in the palace of Qasala. Magically, it can save a loved one who has died, but you need..."
A queela bomb had blown up at that exact moment. Somehow, Silus managed to excape. He later found out that if the Horn of Meirel were real, then a ceremonial phantom of Qasala would be the one to wield it and use it with the tome to bring the loved one back.
"Talla," he said, interrupting his own thoughts, "I must become a ceremonial Qasalan phantom. I think a dagger would be useful."
"Surely you don't believe in the Horn of Meirel, do you, master?" asked Talla, jokingly.
"And what if I do?" replied Silus.
Talla raised her arms, magical beads hanging from them. A Lutari talisman glowed at her neck, and Silus's form changed. It turned into a dark blue, with lightning streaking across it. The Aisha felt his flesh mutate until he became what he had seen earlier that day.
"Come, my minions," Silus hissed in a tone as frigid and biting as the air flowing at the peak of Terror Mountain, "the night is young. We have theft to commit..."
Date: Aug 9th
...In the silence that followed, Talla gazed unabashed into the starless eyes of the phantom, while Goloth cringed away and tried very hard to convince himself that he was somewhere else. Somewhere where everyone has a head to go along with the eyes rolling back in their hoods, and preferably filled with Cheesicles.
"Well?" Silus demanded, harsh as the sonic boom snap of an Angelpuss's wings in flight. "What are you waiting for? Ready the supplies. Particularly the smoke bombs."
As the Skeith focused steadfastly on the nonaccusing wrinkled floor between his toes, bright Talla tilted her head so that the gems woven among fringes of her headscarf caught and stretched between them the cascades of moonlight that flooded the tent. Within the caverns of his mind, Silus was forced to concede that the scarf was a stunning artifact, but as an up-and-coming illusionist, only Talla believed that the beads held the true Kreludor.
That is the greatest secret of deception, after all, the disguised Aisha mused, suddenly glad of the hood covering something that even he could not begin to comprehend. Some mysteries are left unsolved for a reason. 'Belief makes all the difference to that magic. If even the illusionist withdrew their awe of their own creation, all that would remain would be an empty patch in space where once a star had hung, and no one would see even that.'
"Sir?" Talla attempted, yanking Silus's mind from where it sat stewing in a brew of charms and contradictions. Her silky voice was timid, and it made Silus's inborn alarms heighten a hair. The Techo was never timid unless something was about to happen that would make him very, very angry. Bravely, or just because of the fact that she had no other choice, she soldiered on. "Won't the palace guards know you aren't the true phantom?"
"And how will they know that?" Silus snarrled back, bringing now to use the air of knowing what he was talking about that the Aisha had crafted over the years, mainly to patch up stituations when he in fact had no idea what was going on. "Are you thinking about betraying me, my bright Talla?" Indifferently, a nail carved from the residue of a dying star flicked out from beneath the heavy black sleeve of his robe, absently mincing the chilled tent air into slices. "You know what happens to traitors..."
"No sir!" the Techo yelped, holding up webbed fingers before her in defense, and the would-be spirit laughed softly, terribly. Tucking her tail a little closer to the ground, she ventured, "I just meant the real phantom would be able to teleport in and out of the palace. And materialize things. And be..." Talla trailed off for a moment, and then finished lamely, "Spooky."
"Spooky?" Silus repeated doubtfully.
"Yessir," she muttered, shame-faced. "Spooky."
The silence took in a mighty breath, robbing the voices of Goloth and Talla as they huddled together, differences and disdain buried by the avalanche of terror that was a Silus who could both fire you and freeze you with a touch. Or so it seemed.
Then Silus smiled, not the teeth-bearing of the creature but a true Aisha's smile, and the hypnosis crumbled. "Perhaps you are right," The smile suddenly altered so that the night air flattened, pressed in around them like the walls of a cell. "But that doesn't matter, because the disguise is for bluffing."
"Bluffing?" the Skeith, who had not spoken for quite some time, repeated stupidly. Quicker to catch on, Talla nodded; she understood, though she did not approve.
The head of the false phantom bobbed, nodded in a way that made both apprentice thieves worry that it had come off the shoulders altogether. "That's right," it hissed, taking on the tone that could freeze water with a single syllable, and Silus's no longer. "We are going to bluff the living daylights out of them."
Talla turned towards the puzzled Skeith, to explain. "We only need to convince the guards that the phantom wants to speak to one of Qasala's royal family, and scare them enough so that they let us in. We'll follow him past the guards, wearing Invisihats to get far enough into the palace without being seen, and follow the map to the Tome of Kishie. Because we don't know where the Horn is," Here she interrupted herself to look at Silus skeptically. "Or if it exists, Silus will-"
"Silus will find out from the Qasalan ruler himself," the master of thieves interjected, with an almost cheesily evil smile. To see the phantom, or even a semblance of the phantom grin was a sight to haunt nightmares, and this was what both Talla and Goloth remembered about that fateful night more than anything else. "By diplomacy," Lazily, the spirit's nails released their celestial quarry, and let the moon come out again. "Or otherwise."
* * * * *
The plush crimson carpet and marble walls of the palace hallways made an awkward setting for a creature whose darkness seemed to rob of the moon of her shining, and the miserable pair of guards which fought with one another for the space along the wall farthest from the soured dream they were escorting to the throne room. Thankfully, their squabblings covered up the heavy thud of Goloth's footsteps as his apprentices slunk out of sight into a side passage, but Silus still exhaled mightily in relief when they were gone.
"The throneroom, sir," stammered one guard as they reached the end of the hallway. Light from below the jeweled door scattered across their feet, casting shadows which crawled and chittered among themselves like mad Myncis. The other hastily threw open the door by an ornate golden handle, and each pressed themselves to the walls as flat as they could go while the phantasm passed.
Silus chuckled, a sound that made their paws twitch with the urge to clap them over their ears as the door slammed shut. He'd always been a performer at heart.
"Welcome, good phantom," a silken voice murmured from behind him as he gazed thoughtfully at the closed door. Breezy and gentle, it nonetheless hooked him as surely as a Petpet to a leash. "Or Silus. Whichever you prefer."
Somewhere between the present and the past, Silus's breath fled from his lungs, and then he was not a phantom but merely a bewildered Aisha, looking very foolish indeed in an oversized coarse robe.
It was a voice he knew, and had done his best to forget.
Slow as the searching grasp of autumn, he turned, and saw...
Date: Aug 10th
...the tall, thin frame of his sister, bathed in moonlight, standing before Jazan’s empty throne.
Silus found himself unable to move or to think, his jaw hanging open slightly. His throat was dry, too dry to allow him to cry out in shock. Then, slowly, he felt it... a name that he thought had been lost forever in the flow of the Lost Desert’s great river came back to him, as if it was an echo traveling across a wide and terribly empty space.
He forced his voice to form the name. “Asthera...”
But even as he spoke, he realized that this was not Asthera, at least not as he had known her. For as his eyes adjusted to the light of the room, he could see straight through his older sister to another figure behind her, one with chilling black eyes and a wide, snaggle-toothed smile.
“I see you’ve come to join us,” the phantom murmured, in a perfect mimicry of the female Aisha’s voice. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
After staring dumbly for a few moments, Silus eventually managed to demand hoarsely, “W-what is the meaning of this?!” This was answered by a protracted laugh, which sounded to him like one of the whimpering, sighing stringed instruments played by Qasalan street musicians. Again, the pale hand emerged from the dark sleeve of the phantom’s robe- to his sick horror, Asthera’s hand rose limply to mirror the gesture- and pointed toward what looked like a chest of some sort, resting against the wall and draped with a dull red length of silk. Instinctively, the thief knew that this was the resting place of the Horn of Meiril. “So it’s here,” he breathed. “It really does exist... But why haven’t you retrieved it yourself, if you know where it is?”
Though the figure’s face could not be seen, Silus detected a sneer of annoyance on its voice. “I cannot open that chest, you understand. I am unable to lay even a finger on its surface. So I’ll be needing you to do it for me,” it continued, smoothing its voice over into a travesty of friendliness. “You needn’t worry about being caught-” it had obviously noticed the apprehension stealing across Silus’s face- “Jazan is currently being... occupied elsewhere.” The Aisha guessed, from the tone of the phantom’s voice, that he didn’t really want to know what Qasala’s ruler was being 'occupied' with. “All that remains to be done is to retrieve the Tome; I believe your friends are bringing it to us, are they not?”
* * * * *
“Talla, what kind of security does the palace have? Besides guards, I mean.”
Talla was glad for the fact that no one could see her awkward, high-kneed jogging as she hefted the Tome of Kishie in both arms, thinking darkly that if it weren’t for Golloth’s clumsiness, she could have trusted him to carry the book instead. “What? Oh, I don’t know, maybe some protective charms like the ones that were on this thing. Nothing I can’t take care of, as you can see.”
“You’re sure they don’t have... um... statues that can see through Invisihats?”
The Techo’s jogging slowed gradually to a stop, and when she spoke again, it was with a note of wariness. “Why do you ask, Golloth?”
“Because I think those Scorchios are staring at us.”
A rough scraping noise sounded through the hallway, like heavy stone joints grinding into motion.
“I think we should maybe run faster, Talla.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice.”
* * * * *
Holding his breath, Silus lifted the Horn of Meiril out of its chest with ample care. Its elegant, twisting form was a stained ivory that was made no less beautiful through age; the mouthpiece was simple and carved from silver, and there were three holes along the top of the instrument, obviously meant to provide a small range of notes depending on fingering positions. The Aisha found that his hands were shaking as he presented the artifact to the waiting phantom; he could hear the faint thud of two sets of footfalls, one light and one heavy, approaching the door to the throne room.
The phantom’s mismatched teeth made an appearance once more as a wide smile split its face. Behind them, the ornate door creaked open, and though no one could be seen entering, the sound of heavy panting and a strained grunt as a Skeith’s invisible claws shoved the door closed again told Silus that all of the pieces were now in place.
Asthera, frail and transparent in the light of the moon, swayed every so slightly, like a lone river-reed in the wind.
“At last... at last, the Horn is mine...”
Date: Aug 10th
..."What do you mean, yours?" Silus demanded. "I need it to free my sister!"
The image of Asthera faded, and phantom's gaze impaled the quivering Aisha. "Sometimes," it hissed, "the need of one must come second to that of others."
"NO!" Silus' voice rose to an agonized shriek. His minions were watching, but he no longer cared. His eyes and heart were filled with the anguish of losing his sister a second time. "NO!" he cried again. "Asthera's life depends on it, don't you understand?"
The shadowy being's gaze narrowed and intensified. It no longer paused to wash through Silus' mind like a flood; this time it stabbed directly to his soul, a terrible blade forged of cold darkness and inexorable will.
Silus held his ground.
The creature stared at him, as if slowly and deliberately measuring him. "Sometimes the need of one must come second to that of others," it repeated itself.
"Fine! I'll do it! I'll do whatever it takes!" Talla and Goloth were staring at him as if he had lost his mind; and perhaps he had surrendered it, allowed it to be eaten away by the beast he had released from the cold steel bars of his heart. But that beast was all he had left: a crying embodiment of a near-forgotten love that inspired both agony and desire. Even his pride seemed to have fled, and Silus paid no attention to the fact that his voice broke as he said, "What do I need to do?"
The phantom shook its head. "You would surrender what you call your very self."
The words struck a dagger of ice into Silus' heart; but the beast within him was no longer imprisoned there. It had spread to every part of his being, and could no longer be contained. His voice was strangely steady as he replied, "Asthera did not deserve to die. That gang assassin was after me. It was I, not her, who stole from him. She didn't have to jump in the way of his dagger. It should have been me that day." He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "May things be as they should be."
Of all the things that happened that day, it seemed that the phantom's response was the strangest: it smiled. Not a leering, crooked-toothed smile, but a soft, gentle, genuine smile, as if Silus had finally done precisely what it had been waiting for.
There came a yelp from Talla, and Silus turned just in time to see the writing on the Tome's cover explode into blinding light. The Tome leapt from the Techo's hands, and as if guided by some will other than his own Silus' own paws lifted to receive it. And then, clear and piercing, there came a note from the Horn of Meiril, winded by invisible lips within the phantom's hood.
The Tome's light suddenly went dead, and it fell from Silus' nerveless paws to strike the floor with a soft, dull thud. But the Aisha didn't even notice. Right before his eyes, the willowy form of Asthera solidified into living shape, and padded softly down to meet him.
Silus scarcely dared to believe it. "Asthera?" he ventured. "Sister?"
Her smile was warm and gentle, exactly the way he remembered it. "Silus," she said softly, reaching for him. But Silus turned away in shame.
Asthera's face fell into soft sadness, then lifted in gentle sympathy and understanding. "My brother, do not be ashamed. Did you not tell the Keeper that you would give up what you called your very self?"
Silus stared at her in confusion. "I don't know what he meant."
"You called yourself a thief. But underneath is the brother I once knew. Be rid of this cloak you have called your identity, and be yourself again."
Talla and Golloth were staring at the two siblings in confusion, powerless to understand the situation, much less consider how it would affect their lot. Silus' gaze flicked from his sister to his minions and back. "Is that what this is all about?" he asked. "That... that phantom..."
"The Keeper," Asthera reminded him, and Silus swallowed and nodded before continuing,
"All the Keeper wanted was for me to stop being a thief?"
Asthera shook her head, a smile touching her lips in a show of gentle amusement at her brother's confusion. Then she sobered. "There are others like me. The Keeper is their guardian. You are now bound up with their fate."
She stooped to lift the Horn, which had fallen to the ground when the phantom -- the Keeper -- had vanished, then picked up the Tome and handed both artifacts to Silus. "He was given this task as punishment for his misdeeds -- crimes committed soon after the beginning of Time. Only after all of them have been freed can he shed the dark form that was given him and find rest, and only then can you be released from your charge."
Silus stared at her in silence, then repeated the question he had asked earlier that night -- a few minutes ago, although it seemed like eternity. But this time, he asked it with peace of heart, knowing that it would be all right in the end. "What to I have to do?"
Asthera took his paw in hers, and led him toward the door. Talla and Goloth followed numbly, in silence, and the thought flitted across Silus' mind as to what he was going to do with them and the rest of his band, and the scattered remnants of the life he had so suddenly and unexpectedly left behind.
He would work it out in time. For now, the beast that had paced within him was at rest, and that peace had spread throughout the rest of his soul.
He glanced down at the Tome and the Horn, then frowned. The Tome sat quietly in his paws, staring back at him in blank silence, as did the Horn; but as his gaze came to rest on the Horn, it was instantly and utterly captured...
For there, staring back at him from the point on the ivory instrument where his reflection should have been, was dark, hooded figure with a pair of solemn, black-and-white, piercing cartoon-character eyes.
Date: Aug 11th
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