In 2006 I was on a writing streak: I turned out a number of short stories in rapid succession, one after the other, while I was finding my voice. The last of these was a novella, a fantasy with a setting best described as Roguelike. As in, the game Rogue, best described to modern audiences as a 1980s Diablo. The story was called Below. It followed an expedition deep underground, in which a ruthless criminal and his henchmen planned to use a clever thief and his cohorts as monster fodder while searching for a legendary treasure.
For a few months now I’ve been sitting on my last finished first draft, in which I rewrote Gray Area—a short story from that same period—as a novel. I think I like it, but something has kept me from getting down to the business of editing. That something may be pacing, or inadequate suspense, but whatever it is it’s been bothering me enough to stay away.
The other night, however, I took it in my head to give the same rewrite treatment to Below. I’ve always been proud of that story, but I have to admit I’ve developed more as a writer since then, and I can see places where the plot or the characters look a little too thin. Just a little, but once you see it you can’t unsee it. So I started anew. And I liked what I saw.
In my adult life, I’ve never written a book that could be segmented into parts, but this time I intend to do so. The story flows that way.
What follows here is the first draft of the first chapter. It introduces the setting: the underground ruins of the Elder Kingdom; and the main character: Brenish, a thief obsessed with them. Brenish is ultimately answerable to a wealthy criminal named Gareth, similarly obsessed, and their paths are about to cross in a very, very bad way. Gareth comes in a little later, but this ought to explain why the expedition they’re fated to take together is doomed.
They called it the Fell Current, the madness that gripped men and turned their thoughts below. Of those who felt its pull, many resisted long enough to die of more natural causes, yet on their deathbeds would grieve for a sight they had never seen, a reckless journey never undertaken. The pull was stronger among those with just enough knowledge, or power, to underestimate their peril; it was stronger still among the unwary.
Gold separates the thief from the lord, the saying went. Or perhaps it was another way round; Brenish had never been sure. Gold there was, piled in pits and locked in chests deep beneath the earth, untouched by glimmer of torchlight since the Elder Kingdom vanished long ago. It was the sirens’ call, the beckoning reward for great risks and great adventures under a hundred feet of stone. Brenish knew it was there, because many men had returned to the world of light laden with treasure.
Many men out of many, many more.
But those who returned brought stories, tales of dangerous beasts and goblin hordes, of magical beings that would challenge hardened wizards. In darkened taverns, an inebriated veteran might speak in hushed tones of a terror that left nothing of his companions but cracked bones. Some accounts were little more than boasts, carrying mere threads of truth; still others were veils drawn over uncouth deeds done by the teller himself, to keep from splitting a meager haul. The legends grew, condensed out of half-truths and ancient fears, and spread to the towns all about the countryside.
Brenish, raised in the little village of Ilyenis, near the river and nearer still to Asaph’s Gate, was weaned on those stories. As a child he snuck into the inn where returning adventurers, plied with wine, would slowly release their grip against the horror and speak. He learned his letters from a visiting scholar who compounded such tales, and absorbed every book about the ruins that he could lay hands on. If a purse or a haunch of meat were to be found along with those books, all the better, but the books he always returned.
He knew of a clearing in the forest west of the village, where he had played as a boy, where tall round stonework jutted from the earth like the tips of vast chimneys, each as wide as a hay wagon was long. He climbed to the top of one once, found a sturdy stone grate covered in moss, and peered through into a hidden garden far below. A pair of bronze eyes like coins stared back at him, until he shouted down the hole and they moved away. Echoes came back out of the depths, his own voice sounding in places few men had seen over the course of an entire age, and that sound had burrowed into his heart until he heard it in his dreams.
Ten years had passed since then. His twentieth year was on the wane; the full score would be under his belt come December. Men his age were tending farms, had fathered several children, or had completed studies in the city and now held positions as craftsmen and masters of lore. He was just a thief, and not a very good one. Good enough to make a living for himself, but not to support a family. He was a much better liar; but in Ilyenis he was well known, his greatest skill useless on everyone but the travelers who passed along the road, or the fortune seekers who came through on their way to the Gate, often never to be heard from again.
He bought the adventurers drinks, and never took a copper from them unless they gave it freely. At first his friends mocked him for that, because it was a foolish waste to let their coin pass beneath the earth for good. Yet some of those men were glad to speak with him, and learn something of the perils they might face from the store of knowledge he had acquired. Some came back to thank him. It had earned him a good reputation in the city; now and then, men in the grip of the Fell Current might seek him out.
Brenish had always resisted the Current. He knew his limitations. But beyond the lure of gold was the greater danger, the one that had driven thousands of better men to finally succumb: curiosity.
* * *
Pernilla Alder always insisted on giving Brenish a good meal in exchange for bringing by a stipend from the guild. They looked after their own, and her husband Willy was one of their best. In lockup they could do little but slip him extra food and a few comforts, yet he still found a way to forge documents for them behind the iron bars of the city dungeons. Willy was also a friend; he had paid Brenish handsomely on many occasions for access to his borrowed books.
Brenish entertained the children by the hearth, showing them sleight of hand tricks and then teaching them how they worked; Willy would want no less, even if their mother didn’t fully approve. She let them stay up specially on the nights he came by.
“Give us a story, Uncle Brenish,” said Willy’s oldest, Tamil, a girl of six years. Her younger brother John and the little girl beside him nodded enthusiastically.
He looked to Pernilla, who just smiled in quiet resignation. As long as his talk stayed away from monsters, it would be all right. The children knew something of the goblins that were said to dwell further north of the river, in parts of the ruins that hadn’t been charted since the Romans gave it up. They had heard of trolls and dragons, the latter having amassed more legends above ground than below. They knew of the large insects and the rodents, and some of the less intimidating creatures like the prowling lizards. But Brenish knew to stay away from the worst dangers, the ones even he didn’t like to think about.
“All right,” he said, “I’ll tell you one. I was told this one years ago, by a man named Kennon. He had just come from the ruins and was staying at the inn for a few days while a healer tended his friend.”
“What happened to his friend?” said John.
“His friend was hurt. He said the friend’s name was Harold Spellman, a lesser mage who worked as a potioner. They both came from a city out west. Kennon was a swordsman, a very good one from what he said. Times had fallen hard on their families and they wanted to find their fortune in the Elder Kingdom.
“From Asaph’s Gate they went west a ways, and down, following the stairs to lower levels every chance they got, until they made their way to a little village carved into the stone. No one had seen it in a hundred years.”
“How’d they know that?” said Tamil.
“There was another man down there, long before, named Gressick. He was an officer of the city guard back in his day, well known, but he went into the ruins on his own one day and never returned. Kennon and Harold came back with his helmet, and the mystery was finally solved.
“But just then, they didn’t know who he was. They didn’t know if a monster got him, or if he just broke a leg and starved to death. His bones were scattered all over the town square. He had found some treasure in the deep, a few bags he had tucked in a corner for safe-keeping while he made his way back up. Kennon didn’t know if anyone had been by since then, a goblin or a lurker who might have missed it, or if there were only wild creatures about. He and Harold gathered up the bones and built a mound over them, and decided Gressick’s gold was good enough for them.”
“But how did Harold get hurt?” said John.
“They slept down there, each taking turns so one would always be on the lookout for danger, until they were rested and felt they could safely head back to the surface. When they were most of the way back, a pack of huge rats attacked them. The two friends drove them off, but one of them took Harold’s leg. Kennon bound it quickly and made his friend a crutch, and they quickened their pace as best they could. The noise of their fighting, you see, might attract other beasts before long.
“But the men were lucky. They made it back to the Gate alive. Kennon used some of their gold to pay the healer and make arrangements for their transportation home. They both decided there was enough money to provide for their families, but not enough to pay a wizard for Harold to get a whole new leg. So they made their way back, and as far as I know they’re still living off the treasure they found.”
Brenish leaned down and lowered his voice. “But after Kennon told his story, when he was getting sleepy from wine, he got very quiet, and spoke to the visitors who were still there. He said that when he was on watch, before they came back, he saw something moving in the dark, outside the firelight. Watching them.”
“That’s enough for tonight, Brenish,” said Pernilla.
He held up his hand for peace. “It’s all right. Of course whatever it was, it would never come above ground. The deep creatures, they don’t like sunlight. They don’t like to stray near the surface, and everything down there is afraid to come near the Gate. But I’m telling you children this so you’ll understand it’s dangerous to go down there. Whatever was watching Kennon and Harold, it followed them almost the whole way back. The rats didn’t go near it. The men never got a good look, only glances at something that stayed just out of the light. When they finally got close to the Gate, the thing turned back.”
“What was it?” said John.
“They didn’t know. I have some ideas. But I won’t tell you those stories just now. For now all you need to understand is that you’re safe up here, and the things that live in the ruins won’t ever leave there.”
“But dragons go in and out,” Tamil said. “Father said Visak followed one down.”
“Dragons are different. And these days they leave us alone. But you’re right, of course. There was a time, long ago, when some creatures like goblins dared to come out too. We taught them to fear the Gate. That’s why the thing that followed Kennon turned away. It was afraid of the daylight, or the men that guard the village and keep us safe. Maybe both. The only way you’d ever run into something like that is if you went down to the ruins yourself.”
“I won’t never,” John said resolutely.
Brenish smiled. But he, too, had said that when he was John’s age. And he had prodded, pried at the truth with clever questions, until he got the real stories about the things in the dark. The beast that had followed Kennon was likely a stalking flayer: a short, long-tailed, scaly beast that walked on two legs and was known for both its aggressiveness and skittishness. If it had caught both men sleeping, Brenish would never have heard their tale, and Gressick’s fate would still be a mystery. In fact, he had long suspected that the giant rats were scared off by the flayer, and it was the flayer that took Harold’s leg in the commotion, retreating back into the shadows for its meal before the men ever got a good look.
Tamil was less easily deterred than her brother. “Tell us another one!”
“That’s enough for tonight,” said their mother. “It’s time for bed.”
The usual grumbling ensued, but in a few minutes the children were tucked into a corner, behind a folding screen. Pernilla motioned for Brenish to follow her outside into Willy’s work shed, taking out the big key she kept on a thong around her neck.
“The children love your stories, Brenish,” she said, “though I wish you’d leave out the monsters.”
“If it weren’t for the monsters, I’d’ve gone a long time ago,” he said. “Fear is safer for them.”
She gave the same resigned smile and put the key to the lock. It was a fiendishly heavy mechanism, requiring much of her strength to turn. The walls were thick stone outside, dry wood inside, and the door was two layers of sturdy oak reinforced with steel. It was like a miniature castle, immune to the likes of Brenish, who could pick an ordinary lock with relative ease.
Once inside, Pernilla lit a lamp on the largest of two desks. The light came out whiter than a candle, like a late afternoon sun; it was a spell lamp, a piece of enchanted scrap glass drawing energy from a metal wick dipped in an amber pool of esen at the bottom of a collection jar. Moderately pricey, but not uncommon even in the village, and vital for Willy’s work. The shed was almost as big as their cottage, but cramped: It was packed with shelves, some for books and some segmented into hundreds of little nooks for scraps and scrolls. An apothecary table, drawer ajar, held a collection of inks and brushes, while still more were on the desks within reach of projects he hadn’t yet had a chance to complete.
Pernilla shut the door behind them.
“You know if there’s anything you need,” said Brenish, “we’re all here for you.”
“Much appreciated,” she said. “And I know you mean that beyond the guild. You’re a good friend to our family, Brenish, and that’s why Willy wanted to bring this to you.”
She opened a drawer near the bottom of the large desk, and pulled from it a stack of papers. At the top was one with the appearance of parchment, or spell paper, a glossy sheen hinting at durability beyond that of the documents Willy usually handled. This she picked up, and unfolded several times, until it could be spread out on the desk. It was several feet wide.
Brenish leaned over the work surface to take a better look. The paper was a map, broken into many sections and annotated with scrawls in handwriting that seemed distantly familiar. Numbers, formulas, and verses of riddles seemed to cover every scrap of available space. And suddenly his heart leaped in his chest, knowing the penmanship for what it was. He was looking at a legend, a myth, a rumor out of the depths of old stories come to life beneath his fingers. The Fell Current stirred in the deepest part of his heart.
“Pernilla,” he said, almost in a whisper. “Is this Visak’s map?”
She said nothing. But as quickly as his excitement had come on, common sense pushed it down again.
“No,” he said to himself. “I forgot myself for a moment. This is masterful work. I saw one of Visak’s books, a long time ago. This looks just like his hand. It looks like maps he drew.”
“Willy’s eye’s like no other,” she said proudly. “He’s been working on this since just after John was born.”
“But how did he do this?” said Brenish. “He must have had access to some of Visak’s notes, and his works.”
“Aye, and papers right out of the old wizard’s study.”
When Visak finally passed, five years ago, his legend didn’t die with him. A powerful and shrewd wizard, he had bested a dragon that made its home below the earth in an unknown corner of the Elder Kingdom, and claimed the hoard for his own. Visak had never made any secret of his vast wealth nor his exploits. While he spent enough to be comfortable, no one ever believed he had tapped more than a small part of his bounty. Experts in treasure had seen the artifacts he recovered, and determined there must be much more. Visak’s claims were even grander; but, trusting banks little and greedy rulers still less, he never brought more than a little of his gold to the surface at a time. The rest was, he said, exactly where he had found it, hidden by a spell, and once twice a year he would teleport back to the ruins to claim a little more.
Rumors had always said that Visak had a map, in case his memory ever failed him. But Brenish himself had barely ever believed it, because teleporting in and out was still the safest way for a wizard to go. A mentally infirm old wizard—this fate never befell Visak, who died sound of mind—would be little more than monster bait if he tried to follow the same long route below ground that he had taken in his prime. Still, seeing the paper in front of him, Brenish wanted more than ever to believe he beheld the real thing, that he alone held the key to such a treasure. He obviously wasn’t alone, for after Visak’s death his home had been stripped to the bones by scavengers.
“Where’d Willy come by the materials?” said Brenish.
“Duggle. He and some friends got hold of the wizard’s work. He got some of the spellbooks, but he sold most of those. The papers he thought might be valuable. Whatever Willy makes off it, he’s in for a share.”
Brenish nodded quietly, but he felt betrayed. Duggle may have been city-bred, but he was a guild-brother and a friend. More than that, he owed Brenish a steep favor; if not for the quick talker’s intervention, Duggle would be in lockup himself right about now. Yet he had never mentioned this stash to Brenish, who would have had a keen interest in any artifacts left behind by the late wizard. Brenish had always wondered if Duggle was one of the men who cleaned out the estate, but he had assumed if that was really true, he would have heard something.
“Willy’s in lockup for two more years,” Pernilla said. “He can do that time, but children need their father. I need him. I know the guild has seen to it that we want for nothing, and I’m grateful. But I want my husband back. With enough coin, he can buy his way out.”
The thief stood silent a moment, still lost in the detail of the work. Even the wizard’s speaking mannerisms were transcribed there, for Brenish remembered the way the old man loved to play with words as he spun tales by a fire. Those were the highlights of his memories from the few times he visited the city: An old man in an old rocking chair, drawing on a pipe and surrounded by the upturned faces of dozens of children whose parents conducted business at the bar. A sonorous but captivating voice, rising in laughter as often as it fell to speak of creatures man had never named.
“He wanted me to see this,” said Brenish.
“He sent word. He wants you to sell it. He was worried it wasn’t ready, but he thinks it’s good enough. He knows you can sell it, if anyone can.”
“Not in Ilyenis,” Brenish said without pause.
“No. Besides the lack of buyers, people here know you too well. But in the city you have a better name. It’s not so strange that the map might make its way to you.”
“Aye,” he said.
He could already see a few stories he might tell. If the map was taken along with the rest of Visak’s things, maybe it was studied by the thief who first took it. After going to great expense to study its secrets, the thief realized the undertaking was too great, the risks too high. So it was sold, along with the secrets learned so far, to recoup the cost of the study. And so it passed, hand to hand, from one shady character to another who each decided in turn that it was too dangerous to pursue. Then finally, its last owner decided enough was enough: He could hire Brenish as an intermediary, who was known to the most informed of the adventurer type, to sell the map and its secrets in exchange for a hefty fee, an advance against a stake in the treasure.
But no. He shook his head. Not even Brenish, who had once talked a suspicious constable into letting him go while another man’s purse was in his hand the entire time, could sell that story. Not to a man whose life would be on the line.
“I may have a better name in the city,” he said, “but not much better. They know better.”
He didn’t add that he felt it would be wrong to cheat a treasure hunter, especially to knowingly send them on a wild goose chase that would almost certainly lead to their death. He had always steered them straight before. He wanted them to come back safely, as many of them as possible and with more stories to tell. Always more stories.
“It’s a tough sell,” Pernilla acknowledged. “But if anyone can do it, it’s you.”
He sighed and kept his eyes down, on the paper. Deep regret tore through him, that it wasn’t real. It looked so real; it was so much like the writings he had seen when he was younger. He remembered the wizard’s face and the time he said a few kind words to him. This map meant everything to a man like himself, a man he wouldn’t have the heart to deceive—not even for a friend. It meant the adventure of a lifetime, the treasure of many lifetimes, and a real future.
Time was running out for him; he knew it well. The only thing standing between Cirawyn and the altar was her father’s not-unreasonable demand for a high bride price. City-folk scoffed at the idea that a villager could make a fine shopkeeper’s wife or a lady of standing, but she had the smarts for it and the looks to match, as her father knew well. All the more reason he disapproved of Brenish, who could barely keep himself afloat in a disreputable profession, who had no prospects beyond the next score, and the next, until one day he’d end up in lockup like Willy—or dead—with so little value to the guild that the stipends would dry up long before any kids were grown. Eventually Cirawyn’s dad would find the right suitor, and while her heart belonged to Brenish she would obey her father’s wishes. The memory of the thief would fade as he grew old (if he was lucky enough to grow old) back in Ilyenis, alone.
He was obviously in for a share if he sold the map. Such things were implied. That share could be all the difference between a modest, happy life, and the destructive course he was on right now. It would probably at least cover the bride price, with enough smooth talk. But even if he could sell out a kindred spirit for gain, he wasn’t sure it was even possible.
He stared longingly at the map. If only it were real.
He might even be willing to chase the treasure himself, in that case. His favorite pastime was to muse on the stories he had heard, and wonder what he would have done differently: What he would have taken down, what else he would have done to respond to a threat. Second-guessing the unfortunate was an easy game to play beneath a shady tree in high summer, but he at least was a better player than most, for he had the benefit of considerable knowledge. Stripped of financial limitations, he had in mind just what he would bring along. He wouldn’t go alone; that was suicide. He wouldn’t go ill-equipped. Indeed he would want all manner of potions and scrolls, enough to protect himself and his companions. And he would need an escape plan, one he was sure no one else had ever tried because it was so scandalously expensive. Yet even a modest treasure—and such treasures, while hard to find, were not uncommon in the ruins and could be found with the right magic—would yield a magnificent profit. Someone else would have to shell out for the supplies, but if he could manage to talk them into it, he could make a proper fortune.
This was the key, the thing that would convince a man of money to pay his way.
Brenish felt the Current. For the first time in his life, he felt his fingers slip a little.
“Give me a few days,” he said. “I want to think about something.”
“Do you mind if I take this with me?”
“I insist. You’re a good man, Brenish. Willy trusts you to look out for a friend, and I trust you too. You’ll find a way to make this work, or no one will.”
He nodded back to her in thanks. He would find a way to help them, and himself if he could.
That way was paved with lies. He was good at those.