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Long Night

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What treasure waits in the locked room?

Horror / Thriller
Jodi Bricker
Age Rating:

Long Night

The night is my life. I'm a thief- a damn good one. I take what I want in the dark from the fools who never see me and never know I was there, and I laugh at their misfortune. I have studied in the shadows, in the deepest black corners of this age-old stone city, and I have learned well. I know the stars, and the phases of the moon; and I know which nights are blessed by the dark goddess who turns her pale smile on the thief and the assassin. I glory in my work, teaching the wealthy shites of the city how it feels to lose.

I learned long ago that life is about what you can take. The privileged chuffs in the high town take whatever they want from whoever they can. In the trade district, the boot-licking merchants cozy to their betters, groveling for a whiff of favor, all while they take coin and labor from the beggarly men who drudge in the streets. The poor take what they can get digging through the trash that seems to migrate to the worst parts of town. A scrawny girl growing up on those streets... everybody takes.

I learned to take for myself as well. I started stealing by taking apples and meat pies from the street vendors to eat. Now I take from the opulent homes on the hill, where there is much greater reward to be had. I have taken a life for myself where starvation is merely a memory that drives me forward, not the constant stalker it still is for those less fortunate.

I don't go so far as to share what I've earned on my nightly ventures with the other denizens of the poorer quarters. I'm not that noble, and I don't remember much sharing when I was desperate. However; I do ensure that every beggar has a heavier jingle in their cup as I pass. It's truly a habit of self preservation, learned from within their ranks. A consistent contribution is a reminder of goodwill. The beggars see, hear, and know everything that happens in the city and for the right price, they'll tell you. Also for the right price, they'll forget they ever saw you.

So I'm comfortable. I have fences across the region who pay well for the gaudy items I appropriate, and I've amassed a good bit of gold. I'm as safe as a dagger on my belt and a niche in a forgotten corner of the catacombs can make me. In spite of this relative luxury, I have grown bored with the glittering manors of the self-important nobility. The easy plunder is not as satisfying as it once was. I find myself seeking out a risk, a test.

Tonight is a very special night; a challenge that I've been looking forward to for a long time. The sanctuary of the Order of Cruor is an ancient stronghold built of black stone and iron. Dusty legends and furtive whispers in the ale houses tell of an impenetrable room within, locked and magicked to safeguard the treasures inside. It is said by some to be an enormous ruby, mined in a forgotten age in the mountains of Cordamund and hidden away by long-dead monks. Others, notably those worse for drink, claim it is a golden amulet that gives the wearer the power of flight, and it was held to be blasphemous to the gods by the original High Priest. The list of treasures goes on and on, each more fabulous than the last. The tale I believe, the one told me by the aged hags who truly know the crumbling bones of the city, is that the locked room holds the secret to eternal life....

This is a prize worth winning. I can imagine living forever; breathing in all the nights to come. I imagine kings and queens a century from now speaking of me in quavering, awe-struck tones while they clutch uselessly at their treasures. I want to be the immortal mistress of the night, and the eternal queen of thieves. The mythic "impenetrable room," is an added enticement; the challenge I crave.

I have made the room my quest. I have sought out the myth keepers, drunken braggarts, and sages to learn all that is known about this fabled wealth and the measures that protect it. I even relieved a fat Burgher on the street of his accompanying fatter purse solely because I was short the gold to buy a tattered map of the sanctuary from a slightly unscrupulous scribe. I am ready, darkness has fallen, and tonight is the night.

A visceral tingle passes through my body as I hover in the darkness in sight of my target. Shadows cast by moss dripping trees enfold me in their cool comfort. I lick my lips in anticipation, and instinctively dust the itch from my fingers. The stone walls and iron gates are impressive defenses, but the small rounded windows high up in the walls are simple to access for an agile thief. There are two guards in heavy armor who walk the walls; members of the elite warrior sect. The solid footfalls make them easy to track. I measure the rhythm of their circuits, and I know the moment when I must make my climb.

I toss my thin cord and catch the stone sill with the hook. Quickly and silently, I climb the black stone to reach the darkened window. Sliding inside, I crouch to the left of the open window and pull the cord behind me. The darkness in the room is lessened by the light of the night sky, and as my eyes adjust, I see I am in a store room. I creep to the door and listen. I hear the guard pass on the wall high above and a low conversation further in the keep. I slowly open the door enough to see the hall beyond, glowing dimly with flickering candlelight from sconces in the walls. I slip through the door and into the hall, keeping to the wall and moving in a crouch. The secret room is supposed to be deep in the cells beneath the castle, so I know I must find my way down. I check my map, scribed on faded vellum by some ancient priest or ambitious thief, and slide through the shadows toward the back staircase.

Down, down in the darkness of the curving steps I creep, listening to the drone of distant voices muted by the mass of silent stone. A subtle glow lights the landing from the arched doorway to the right. I peer quickly from the edge of the frame to see a long hall, hung with dark tapestries and smoky sconces. A dark-robed cleric walks away from me down the corridor, his gaze trained on the codex in his hands. I slip past along the far wall of the landing and continue my descent, leaving him none the wiser. Past several more dim-lit landings and empty halls, the heavy scent of burning spice clouds my sense of movement in the air. I know I am close to my goal.

Checking my map, I see two more careful flights will lead me to the base of the stairs and the entrance to a wide hall; the location of the treasure room. Eagerly, I crouch against the wall by the archway to peer into the great room in the foundations of the sanctuary. I see a vast room, shadows intermingling with wavering pools of candlelight. Rich tapestries with weavings made indistinct by time and darkness adorn the walls, and graying veils of cobwebs drape the high ceiling. An ornate altar of some sort squats ponderously in the center of the room, and behind that- a solid door. I take hold of my excitement and continue to scan. There. Standing still and tall in front of the altar is one guard, dressed in the dark tabard of Cruor.

I slide with the shadows along the wall to the left of my niche by the door, weaving my form with the murky wall hangings. Silent, I inch imperceptibly to the looming black of the corner, where I huddle for a moment and listen. The back wall is more well lit, but the guard will have to look past the candles burning on the altar to catch my swaying progress toward the door.

I stop still when I am close enough to see the details of the door. I glance at the guardian to confirm he still stares straight ahead, away from my vantage point in the shadows by the wall. I appraise the locking mechanism on the portal ahead of me, and am filled with glee. It is an impressive lock, but a style I have worked on many times with success. More troublesome is the door itself. I see no chance of opening it to slip through without alerting the guard. His poor luck.

Slowly, slowly, I move behind the monstrosity of an altar that stands between me and the unwary soldier. I am so close I can hear his regular breathing and the fitful creak of his armor when he idly shifts his weight. I free the weighty cosh from my belt pouch and ready my arm as I rise up directly behind him and swing over the altar to connect solidly with the back of his skull. He drops, bloodless, to the ground in a clatter of armor and useless weaponry while I leap to his side and confirm I need no longer be concerned with him.

Picking the lock is now a simple task. With practiced movements, I twist my picks in the metal innards until I hear the satisfying click. I pull open the door slowly to avoid any creak, and I am confronted with yet another room, smaller and empty this time, and another locked door.

I sigh. I knew the lock I just handled had been too easy. At least, from the unbroken expanse of dust coating the floor, this room was not entered often. I drag the guard's heavy body into the room and shut the door behind me. With the door closed, the small room is now blacker than night, so I strike a flint to my tiny shuttered lantern and leave it open enough to let me see the room around me.

The inner door is massive; bronze inlaid with silver in the form of twining arcane sigils. The wan light from my small lamp glints across the glowing designs. It is a treasure in its own right, but not the one I am concerned with tonight.

As I kneel in front of the door and arrange my lock picks, I stretch my fingers. I can feel the deep ache that will someday stiffen my bones and gnaw away at my skill. Now, though, the trade-off for the hours of practice is attunement to the slight flutter of the tumblers, and almost instinctive understanding of their movements.

I take a deep breath before I insert the picks into the dusty keyhole. With my ears trained on the smallest sound of picks on metal, I experimentally move the picks in increments in each direction, listening for the shape of the lock. Occasionally, I still hear the sound of muffled voices from outside in the keep, but that is only at the edge of my awareness.

Once I can see the workings of tumblers and pins in my mind, I begin to pick out the master's knot in front of me. Pins fall, metal clicks, and a new tangle slides in place, a deeper layer of the mechanism to be overcome. Each triumph is followed by a new challenge as I delve into the heart of the lock. My legs begin to ache in my crouch, and a bead of sweat runs down my forehead with the precise, painstaking movements of my hands. The flicker of my lamp's flame throws my shadow, crooked and shaking on the walls of the empty room. I nearly shout in exultation as the lock clicks open beneath my hands. However, I stop myself and simply shoot a triumphant grin at the guard's crumpled form.

Back to the task, I reach for the catch of the heavy door and ease it open. A rush of stale air causes my lamp to sputter but remain lit. A sickly sweet, musty smell permeates the air, registering as a faint spark of recognition in the depths of my mind. My gaze flicks around the space, eager to find my reward, but also to gather the layout of the room and any dangers I might be facing. The chamber is a perfect square of stone blocks, interrupted only by the heavy bronze door. It is covered in a velvet coat of dust, and motes hang thickly in the air, dancing in the uncertain light. The room is empty save for the huge chest in the center. Glimmers of gold and jewels shine from the dusty surface. At last!

I creep into the room, taking each step carefully, as the dry weight of ages seems to settle over me oppressively. The chest isn't even locked. The arrogant fools had trusted in their "unbreakable" lock to secure their secret. I touch the top of the chest reverently, clearing the filth from a ruby the size of a bird's egg, and the worked gold around it. I recognize some of the same strange symbols I had seen on the door. I slowly lift the heavy lid, anticipating the gleam of gold and jewels, or the long rolls of ancient writings detailing the means of gaining immortality, but there is only... dust.

"No," I whisper in disbelief. All of my work and research- the wretched lock, were all for this. My dreams of eternity, the take of a lifetime, and I am rewarded with dust.

I reach in to scrape my fingers through the dust, but instantly, there is an arm around my throat, deathly strong and pulling me backwards. The rancid sweet smell is overwhelming as I gasp and reach for my dagger. I stab back at my captor and hear a crunch and a hissing cackle before the sharp pain in my neck paralyzes me. I stare, wide-eyed and unable to move at the arm holding me. It is gray and thin, with withered skin showing through rents in a ragged, filthy shirt.

Panicked, I break free from shock and struggle. The arms holding me seem to have grown impossibly stronger, but I stab again, back and up this time, and I tear myself away, feeling the skin on my neck shred in my escape.

I turn, with my dagger in front of me to face my enemy. The specter of a man stands before me; burning eyes and hollowed flesh. My blood drips from his mouth as his lips curve in a feral smile. The same crumbling laughter grinds from his desiccated throat, and before I can act, he is on me again. Fast, impossibly fast, he twists my head sideways to bare my neck, and that pain pierces to my bone again. His grip is like iron, and I cannot resist. I feel a drowsy warmth seep through my limbs, and I feel somehow detached from my body. In a haze, I realize aimlessly that the impossible lock was never meant to keep me out. It was meant to keep him in.

Black overtakes me, and I know I am dying. This fiend has taken my soul, and I am dying inside this filthy room. When he tosses me to the floor, I don't even feel my bones hit the stone. Through deepening shadows, I see a man in stained clothing standing over me. He is beautiful, and he is smiling at me with blood red lips. I imagine he speaks to me, but perhaps it is my last lingering dream of this life, "Rest now, daughter." Then he too fades, into a darkness unlike any I have ever known...

The night is my life. I'm a thief- a damn good one. I take what I want in the dark from the fools who never see me and never know I was there, and I laugh at the misfortune. I survive in the shadows, in the deepest black corners of this age-old stone city. Tonight is a very special night...

This night is endless.

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