Saturday, 27 July 2013

Short fantasy story - Terror Unleashed

Tarsis awoke with a start as the nightmare faded from his half-woken mind, glad for once that his memory failed him. Rising from his sweat-drenched bed, he walked over to the window and drew back the curtain no more than a couple of fingers width, flooding the room with welcome sunshine. He shivered as a cool breeze caressed his naked skin, but he ignored the cold; his mind was already working as he watched people in the street below going about their daily business, ignorant of the fact that they were being observed from the small window set high in the narrow-fronted building.
Idly, Tarsis watched them for a brief moment before deciding what he would do with the remainder of the day, playing an age-old game of guessing the wealth of individuals and the whereabouts of their concealed purses. Finally, he stepped back from the window, looking up as he did so for the position of the sun. It was mid-morning and the realisation made him sigh. He had barely slept and even though he was tired he recognised that sleep was banished. Burglary was not an ideal career, but at least it kept him from the poor-house.
Turning from the window he retraced his steps to the discarded clothing upon the floor. He dressed swiftly, pulling on his day clothes. His leggings were ripped at the crotch and looked beyond repair eliciting a sigh of despair. He considered buying a new pair, but decided not to. His money was far better spent on ale and gambling. A brightly coloured linen under-shirt was followed by his best woollen tunic, which was heavily patched and in parts threadbare. He tied his tunic about his waist using a stout leather belt from which dangled an even stouter purse. He had a reputation to keep and it would not do to have his purse stolen. Only then did he allow himself the opportunity to look at his night’s takings, spread out upon the table.
It had been a good night’s work. The jewellery would not fetch a high price. It never did. There were too many people involved with the disposal. At least the money he had stolen was his. Three silver calder and twenty coppers would last him for a few weeks if he was frugal - and a few days if he was not.
As he assessed the sum his eyes alighted upon one of the two gold rings he had found and for a moment his heart almost failed. Involuntarily he took a step backwards as though the additional distance would render him safe. There was no mistaking the faint blue aura that marked it as a magic-user’s ring. He had heard the tales often enough, but had never knowingly sought one out. He was not a fool to court with death.
Clearly he had already touched the ring for it to now be on the table and he surmised that it must be safe to handle. Dispose of it then — that at least was a safe option. He rejected that idea almost immediately, knowing that he would not get rich by being cautious. He licked his lips as he considered what might happen should he decide to keep it. He had heard rumours about magic rings many of which were bad for the thief and usually involved a curse. On the positive side though it might render him invisible, which for a thief would have enormous benefits. He imagined himself sneaking into a shop — in broad daylight — and helping himself to the takings and a smile hovered on his lips.
He knew that if he delayed he would be hours considering his options. Riches favoured the brave, as his father was fond of saying. He snatched up the ring and jammed it on the index finger of his left hand. Damn the consequences!
It fitted snugly and for a moment he admired the workmanship, lost in thought. When nothing changed, his confidence that nothing unpleasant was going to happen grew. He went to a small mirror hanging on the wall, but was hugely disappointed to see that he was still visible. He looked back at the ring: the glow marking it as a magic ring had faded, which was as expected — after all sorcerers did not want to announce to the world what they were.
For some reason he was reluctant now to take it off and decided that he would wear it when he went out. Perhaps it simply brought the user luck and after the recent few months he knew that he needed some.

The tavern was small and dingy. Clouds of smoke from numerous pipes and a partially blocked chimney filled the air. To Tarsis this was home and he revelled in the musty atmosphere and the reek of stale-ale soaked carpet. He worked his way through the crowd to a narrow door at the back of the room and without pausing swiftly slipped through. Carack looked up from his work and scowled at the smaller man before removing the two gold amulets he was studying from the table and placing them in the drawer furthest from Tarsis. In a way the older man was acknowledging the younger man’s skill and the realisation brought a crooked grin to Tarsis’ lips.
‘Greetings, Carack,’ he offered in a hopeful but friendly manner. Carack grunted something unintelligible and offered Tarsis a seat. Gratefully Tarsis sat as he pulled a small pouch from within his tunic. The spoils from the previous night spilled upon the table n a flash of gold, silver and copper.
‘Poor takings,’ Carack intoned matter-of-factly, sadly shaking his head. His lank, grey hair swung in time with his head, but his eyes never left Tarsis’. Tarsis was not perturbed; this was a ritual he had grown accustomed to.
‘People don’t leave their riches out anymore,’ he answered the older man, shaking his head solemnly. ‘Three nights takings and that is all I have to show for it.’ He threw up a hand in despair.
Carack’s eyebrows raised and for a moment Tarsis suspected that the other man knew that he had visited the ‘Hen and Weasel’ only yesterday, selling his previous night’s takings.
Carack remained silent, fingering a gold necklace with an exquisite topaz set in a platinum clasp hanging about his neck.
‘I’ll give you forty calder for this,’ he announced after a respectable pause.
Tarsis nearly fell off his seat with surprise, but professional that he was, he masked his features and gave Carack a bland look. ‘Done, and the other items?’ he asked rather hopefully.
Carack pawed the other items, which looked small and insignificant in his massive hands. ‘Three calder and five coppers for the rest. Not a penny more.’
It was a good deal, possibly three times as much as Tarsis had hoped for, which was twice as much as he usually received. He kept his mouth shut, afraid that he would break the spell of the deal.
Tarsis accepted the coins and beat a hasty retreat before Carack realised his error. He was elated and as he made his way through the tavern he considered his ring. Perhaps it was bringing him luck after all!

That night Tarsis stood within the shadow of a doorway across the street from a house that had been his intended target for many years. It was a large house belonging to a wealthy merchant whom he often followed in the vain hope that he would find some vulnerability he could exploit. Many a night he had stood at this exact spot staring at the large dwelling, trying to summon the courage to enter. Merchants were a bad lot. They employed night watchmen to guard their wealth, an act which was despised by the guild of thieves. Anyone robbing a merchant was either held in very high esteem or simply dead.
Tarsis juggled the conflict within. His earlier success with Carack made him feel confident, possibly over so. He was good, but he did not want to chance his luck too far. He had known several thieves who had been tempted by wealthy merchants and he had attended each funeral as a reminder of his own mortality. Tonight was different though, he felt lucky.
Without thinking further he stepped from the shadow and crossed the street, finding that his feet were betraying him. With an agility born from years of training he threw himself over the wall at a point where the shadows were deepest. For the moment he felt safe; if caught now, he would feign a drunken stupor and would no doubt face a few days in gaol for his folly. The next step took courage.
He knew which window to enter; it was the one partially concealed by a tall beech tree growing close to the wall. He used that to help his climb and within a few heartbeats he was sitting upon a narrow sill with his clasp knife held in his hand. Now it was a race against time to enter the house and avoid the night watchman. His hand trembled as he inserted the blade between the window and the frame. The trick was simple: find the latch and force it. Within moments the window was open and he listened whilst perched upon the window ledge before continuing. No lights came on which was a good sign and he could hear nothing from within. He parted the curtains and looked inside, but could see very little. Feeling exposed upon the window ledge he entered and stood with his back to the wall whilst his eyes grew accustomed to the dark.
It was a small room with a single door, probably a study judging by the solitary table, chair and chest of drawers. Quickly he searched that, but it contained nothing of value. He had hoped that with his new found luck he might immediately find the merchant’s treasure room. In frustration he crossed to the door. He opened it a fraction and peered out. A corridor stretched to either side of where he stood, with several doors leading from it. Tarsis stepped boldly out and tried a door to his left, it swung open and he stepped inside. It was a bedroom and a figure reclined upon the bed; a woman he realised after a moment. That was good luck for she would have jewellery and he stepped over to her dressing table and silently opened a drawer. It was filled with trinkets and a couple of gold necklaces and Tarsis filled his pocket before rummaging another. Her purse followed the jewellery and then, finding no more, he left the room before she awoke. He could not bring himself to leave the house just yet, things were going too well. He tried another door and as it opened his heart nearly failed. From behind he heard footsteps and a growing light announced the arrival of the night watchman.
Tarsis stepped inside and quietly closed the door. His looked across to the window, deciding that it was time to leave. He was in another bedroom and judging by the snoring it was probably the merchant’s. He had seen him often enough before and the memory prompted an image of a fat oily man, his fingers anointed with numerous gold rings, each decorated with precious gems. The opportunity was too good to miss. Tarsis stood by the door, praying that the night watch man would fail to find any signs of his break-in.
Fearfully, he watched the small gap at the bottom of the door. The night watchman’s footsteps came closer followed by the tell-tale sight of his torch-beam as it swept along the gap under the door and then the light seemed to stop. Tarsis held his breath. He found himself inadvertently twisting the ring upon his finger as though seeking to invoke the magic within. Gradually the light diminished and he heard the watchman moving on down the corridor, shutting doors in the distance.
Tarsis recovered his wits and stealthily made his way around the merchant’s room, relieving the discarded clothing of a weighty purse and other valuables. Turning to a chest of drawers, he found and pocketed several rings and a golden necklace. Not wanting to chance his luck too far he made his way to the door and after a brief glance along the corridor he retreated the way he had come.

Once in the safety of his own room Tarsis performed a short but lively jig before tipping the spoils of his night’s work upon his table. The result was fabulous. He was staring at more wealth than he had owned in his entire, but brief, lifetime. Some time passed before he packed the stolen jewellery into his usual hiding place beneath a loose floor board. He went to bed entirely happy with the night’s proceedings, satisfied that by morning he would be a wealthy man.
It was strange, but excited as he was he had soon fallen into a deep sleep. Darkness surrounded his weary mind to be replaced, in the way of dreams, by a soft gentle glow. He found himself standing in a long tunnel and imagined himself to be deep within the heart of a mountain. The thought was not pleasant for he was a city dweller by nature, but no matter how hard he tried to influence his dream he remained stubbornly within the tunnel.
He had a curious feeling about this dream which felt like no other. All at once his doubts faded and he felt the urge to explore. He followed the tunnel and abruptly came across a gate barring his way. The professional in him recognised the three-turn tumbler lock hanging from a chain wrapped tightly around the gate and with a mixture of euphoria and curiosity he set about trying to pick it. Searching his many pockets he discovered his best lock-pick and quickly set to work. After the stress of his recent burglary he needed something to occupy his mind and the challenge of the gate was the tonic he needed.
The lock took all of his attention. It proved harder than he anticipated, but after a while, and with an audible and satisfying snick, the lock finally sprung. The gate swung inwards and without thinking Tarsis stepped through. The tunnel continued some way further when abruptly he came across a tall window blocking the way. This was too much. His first instinct was to break the glass, but that would be too easy. Removing his clasp-knife from his pocket he unfolded the blade and ran the knife around the edge of the glass, biting deep into the putty. Almost as soon as he had finished the glass fell towards him and swiftly he sprang to catch it. The glass had not moved far but something was amiss and it broke as soon as his hands came in contact. The shards fell to the ground smashing on the ground in a loud clatter.

Tarsis awoke with a start. It was daytime and sunlight filtered through the curtains. Hurriedly he dressed, pushing the uneasy feeling about his dream to the back of his mind. Gathering the wealth from its hiding place he returned to the tavern, seeking Carack. Warmly he greeted the tavern’s occupants and, mystified, they nodded their response, for Tarsis was usually a quiet and solitary man.
Carack’s eyes nearly popped out of his skull when he saw the jewellery. ‘You’ve done it haven’t you?’ Carack prompted. It was bad manners to enquire too deeply about the targe,t but the city was awash with the news of the recent robbery.
Tarsis simply smiled, revelling in the other man’s praise. There would no doubt be a reward on his head now, but there was the code binding the thieves and none of them would turn him in.
Carack appraised the haul. ‘I cannot give you money now,’ he said. ‘It will take me a while to dispose of all this. I will guarantee you a fair price though, it’s beautiful workmanship.’ A diamond brooch had caught his eye and he was turning it around in the light.
‘See to it and the brooch is yours,’ Tarsis offered.
For the second time Carack was taken aback, but Tarsis was at least ensured of Carack’s sincerity now.
Taking his leave, Tarsis returned home after first visiting the market and buying food to last for a few days. He decided that he had better disappear for a while until the hubbub about the robbery died down a little. The money he had stashed away in his room was a tidy sum and he doubted that he would have to work for several years. Once the jewellery was sold he would actually be quite wealthy. A grin sprang to his lips and another jig followed.
He threw himself upon his bed, staring up at the ceiling; a broad grin fixed as though permanently etched upon his face: never had he felt so alive. Gradually, as the euphoria faded he slipped into sleep. Almost immediately he found himself in the same tunnel as the previous night’s dream. He glanced down and saw the shards of broken glass that lay strewn about the cavern floor, testimony to his attempt to break through the window blocking the tunnel. Intrigued that his dream should bring him to exactly the same spot that he had been in last time, he decided to continue exploring.
The tunnel remained very much the same. As he rounded a turn he came across another gate and an even stouter lock. He rummaged through his clothing and produced his pick. Setting to work he summoned all of his skills to open the portal. He worked for some while. Occasionally he considered giving up, but the professional in him forbade it.
Once again the lock sprang and he stepped back to admire his work, swinging the gate inwards as he did so. At that moment a feeling of unease stole over him and with the gate fully open he had a terrible premonition. His breathing became rapid: something felt wrong, as though opening the gate was a terrible crime.
The darkness before him became threatening and with a wail he turned and fled as though a host of demons were chasing him. He ran as never before, ducking through the window he had destroyed during his previous visit. When he came to the first gate he slammed it shut behind him. With shaking hands he sought his lock-pick,s but in his haste they kept falling from his grasp. He kept trying to tell himself this was simply a dream, but with a sickening feeling of dread he knew that it was not. Finally inserting a lock-pick into the keyhole he tried to still his trembling hands, but with little success. Beads off sweat spotted his brow and ran down his forehead, distracting him from his work.
A dreadful cry escalated from the darkness in front of him, making him jump with fright and almost causing him to drop the lock-pick again. Determined not to look up he frantically worked on the lock, all the while aware of the sound of footfalls as something raced along the tunnel towards him. With a click he threw the first of the three tumblers and instinctively flung himself away from the bars as he did so.
Talons clawed the air inches from his face. The sounds of a heavy body slamming into the gate made him step back further, his heart lurching with fear. A demon, for that was all that he could think the creature was, stood with its arms through the bars of the gate, reaching out to grasp him. Its face was distorted in a terrible grimace as it desperately tried to reach him as though the very fibre of its being depended upon it.
Tarsis then noticed his mistake: the lock-pick dangled from the keyhole within easy reach of the demon. As his eye alighted upon it he saw the demon look in the same direction. Without thinking Tarsis ducked beneath the demon’s claws and snatched the lock-pick from the keyhole as the demon withdrew its arms from the bars and tried to reach either him or the lock-pick. Tarsis succeeded and fell backwards away from the gate with the lock-pick in his hand. As he awoke he heard the demon’s dreadful cry fill the air.
Sweating, he sat bolt upright in his bed, his eyes wide with fear. an image of the demon was permanently etched in his mind. A green glow had surrounded it, seeming to come from its flesh. Its feral eyes had locked on his, promising an eternity of pain. It was every nightmare rolled into one; hideous in the extreme. A long pointed snout, filled with ivory fangs. Multiple eyes like a spiders, dark and unfathomable. 
Glancing down at his hand, he saw that the ring upon his finger was glowing and as he watched the light gradually faded until the ring was normal once more. Tugging at the ring he sought in vain to dislodge it, but to his frustration it would not budge. He cried out in anguish. The memory of the last lock came flooding back, it was a three-turn tumbler and he had managed to drop only one. An amateur, he thought with a sickening disgust, could open it now!
‘Damn this ring,’ he cursed as he rose from the bed. Dressing hurriedly he fled from his attic retreat and out into the street.
It was the fastest trip he had ever made to Carack’s small room. ‘Carack, you have to help me!’ Tarsis wailed.
Carack was standing by a small fire and for a moment he looked as though he was about to flee. Tarsis held his arm to prevent him leaving. ‘Is it the town guard?’ Carack asked, looking around. His face reflected the fear in Tarsis’ eyes.
‘You have to help me,’ Tarsis implored, ignoring Carack’s question. ‘I have to get this ring off my finger.’ He held his hand up for Carack to see.
A look of surprise transformed Carack’s face.
‘Is that all? You frightened me half to death!’ He made his way to the door and summoned someone outside. ‘Bring your tools, I have a job for you,’ he called through the doorway.
Tarsis waited impatiently, nervously pacing the length of the room. He ignored Carack’s questioning look and when a man finally entered carrying a heavy bag Tarsis looked ready to faint; his skin was ashen and his eyes wide with fear.
‘I want you to cut off the ring,’ Tarsis asked. The man, a tall, lanky individual with a long thin beard looked surprised at the request. Glancing towards Carack the other man waited for a response. Carack gave it with a barely perceptible nod.
‘Place your hand on the table,’ the man said.
Tarsis complied and the metal worker set to work with a small file, sawing at the golden band. After what seemed an age he gave up and sat back in a nearby chair with a puzzled look upon his brow. ‘How can that be?’ he asked of no one in particular.
‘Don’t give up!’ Tarsis wailed. ‘’You are nearly through.’
‘I didn’t even scratch it,’ the other man replied.
Tarsis looked down and saw that the man spoke the truth. He knew then that he was forever bound to the dreadful ring. Without thinking further, for if he did he knew that he could not continue, he removed the clasp knife from his pouch, unlocked the blade and with a swift downward stroke tried to sever his own finger. A cry erupted from his lips as the finger failed to part from his hand. Blood oozed from the wound whilst the faces of the two onlookers turned to revulsion.
‘Stop it!’ Carack demanded, but as he rose to prevent his friend from harming himself further, Tarsis brought the knife down a second time, severing more flesh from around his finger.
The pain was unbearable, but he had not completed the task. ‘Cut it off!’ he demanded of the metal worker, shaking with pain. The finger was a terrible mess and it was perhaps for that reason that the other man complied. Reaching into his bag for a sturdy knife he approached Tarsis who laid his hand upon the table as best he could. Pain wracked his face as he braced himself.
The other man exerted all of his might upon the already wounded finger which severed with an audible click. Tarsis screamed aloud and held his hand as he rocked back and forth.
The finger lay upon the table with the golden band undamaged.
‘Burn it,’ Tarsis sobbed between gasps.
Carack looked back with revulsion as though he could not bring himself to touch it. The metal  worker looked at the two men and then grasped the finger with the ring and flung it upon the fire.
A dreadful feeling overcame Tarsis and with a cry he rushed to the fire to recover the finger and, more importantly, the ring. He knew that something was dreadfully wrong. At the same time, as though forewarned by some inner instinct, the metal worker started towards the door. Tarsis looked in the flames in horror as the ring melted far too easily and in the last moments of his life he realised the dreadful error he had made. The last lock was precariously held by a single tumbler and this had weakened the ring which was, even now, being consumed by the flames.
A scream of triumph filled the air. The metal worker turned to look towards the flames which had turned a fearful blue and as he did, he tripped over a rug, landing in a sprawl upon the floor. Tarsis tried to run, but a talon seemed to reach from the very air to tear into his back. Carack backed into a corner of the room, his eyes wide with fear as he sought to press himself  into the very fabric of the wall. Before him, Tarsis’ body landed with a thud upon the carpet, a deep crimson stain spreading about his still form.
The demon stepped from its imprisonment, a dreadful look of glee upon its face. Its yellow fangs gleamed in the half light and its talons dripped gore and blood. As its slit-like eyes fastened upon the pitifully mewling Carack, the demon stepped casually over the metal worker before picking  Carack up and tearing at his chest, seeking his still beating heart.
The metal worker fled in terror, crying to those in the other room to escape. The demon did not hurry in his slaughter. After all, being imprisoned for over a hundred years had at least taught him patience. The cries of fear and the thumping of bodies seeking their haste to escape only seemed to heighten his sense of well being.
He was free!

By David Burrows
Author of the Prophecy of the Kings

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