The day crawled on as the three of us went through our usual chores. It was tough working, knowing what we knew, surrounded by those who did not share our knowledge. The Pale Heart Purification ritual, my children, is one of the most important Death Rites very rarely seen by those outside of the temple. Few scholars have been allowed access to the private ritual chambers in the depths of the temple, and initiates are sworn in within their first hour to never talk about it, and several other rites, to outsiders. I see the fear in your eyes, children, but worry not-the details of the ritual are not what is important to this story.
Night crawled over the temple, bringing with it a sense of doom on the three of us who knew what was going to happen. I cannot speak for Kera and Jeroth, but it was very hard for me to see the others going through their duties and their routines as normal. I wanted to grab them, shake them and tell them what I knew. But I stopped myself. And it is good I practiced such good self-control, for I shudder to think how much worse things would have been had we let the panic that inflicted our souls be spread like a disease among the other initiates and acolytes.
The three of us lingered by the front doors for most of the evening, snacking lightly on the roasted beef and chilled wine that was being served for supper. We chatted normally with those that deigned to stop and interact with us, and they kept coming-one by one, only leaving after a few minutes of conversation. I knew we were giving off a strange aura, we had to be, looking so sullen and withdrawn, whispering to one another in the shadows of the green and black obelisks and statues. Each person that stopped to talk to us made my heart jump in my chest.
The massive internal clock inside the temple gave nine ear-splitting rings at the top of the hour, the time for the Pale Heart Purification ritual to start. Again, this was something we apprentices were not allowed to witness, so the crowd in the dining and main halls thinned somewhat as acolytes and clerics left for the throne room ritual chamber. My friends and I remained where we were, trying to sink ourselves further into the shadows, of which there were plenty, and away from all prying eyes. It was two hours until lights out and all apprentices would be expected to be in their rooms.
Kera spoke in a hushed tone, "We're gunna have ta figure out where tha damned thief'll come in and wait fer 'em. Ain't no way they're gonna come in tha front."
Jeroth and I nodded, "Aye," I said, "I think the kitchen and the apprentice library with those windows at the top are the most likely candidates. If the thief is of any skill, they'll probably be small enough to slip through after cutting the glass or something." I had unconsciously tangled my hands up in my robes.
Jeroth cut in, "But what are we supposed to do with them once we catch them? Why are you two so sure we can even stop them at all? They broke into a sacred museum, so obviously they aren't any kind of amateur. I dunno about you two, but I've never been in a proper fight in my life!" His voice threatened to rise above a whisper for a quick moment. "And here you are expecting me to disable some crook!" I understood Jeroth's reluctance, and no doubt Kera did too, but that didn't change things.
Kera punched Jeroth's arm and gave him a nasty look, "Stop bein' such a pansy, will ya? I've got enough experience ta make up fer yer lack of gall, don't you worry." She clapped a fist into an open palm. "Ya jus' gotta make 'em slow down so's I can catch 'em."
Jeroth mumbled something under his breath that neither of us caught, but it didn't matter. His reluctance only served to exacerbate my own. My knees were weak with doubt and my hands slick with sweat. I managed to squeak out in a stunted voice, "B-But if we fail, they'll catch us out past curfew, and we'll have to tell them what we were doing. They'll probably kick us out, and even wipe our memories if the situation is bad enough."
It became very obvious, very quickly that Kera hadn't considered that possibility. Her eyes went wide and her shoulders slumped. Kera had joined the temple because her family's farm was under producing and under the threat of foreclosure from their town's bank. Joining the Death Cult meant that her family would receive financial support from the temple, and if she was kicked out, well... I immediately regretted bringing up the consequences of our failure. I had never seen such a defeated look on Kera's face before and it really sent sharp pangs of regret through my heart.
Three hours later, well into the ritual, we had moved to the study hall and split up to patrol the area. If one of us saw something, we were to whistle like one of the birds that inhabited the jungle around us, the Purple Hollowbone. I took my spot near the back of the room and took a moment to lean on a nearby bookcase to try and calm myself down. My entire body was clenched in nervous anticipation and my muscles ached to be used. I could run well and fast, for a bit longer than normal. Just over two decades of working on the family farm, as it was with Kera, had given me a bit more strength than the average apprentice. Thinking of these things helped a bit, but then my mind wandered to Jeroth's background.
My friend had had a very terrible childhood, one that neither Kera nor I could ever come close to. His parents were professional criminals, big embezzlers and counterfeiters, who had defrauded a disturbing amount of banks and noble families for many years before getting caught, effectively orphaning Jeroth at a young age. Yet, despite his age, Jeroth suffered for the reputation of his mother and father. His former surname and age ensured that he would never be taken in, many prospective couples looking to adopt would immediately reject him once they learned his history. The same also made him an easy target for other children, and in some cases even the Matrons who ran the orphanages.
When he reached adulthood, he spent the first couple of years plying the trade of his ancestors-thievery. His natural good looks and silver tongue garnered him many coins and favors among both wealthy men and women. That is, of course, until he was caught. Like all criminals, he was given a choice to serve out his sentence or join the Death Cult. You might ask, lovelies, why choosing the cult wouldn't be the obvious choice...you must realize that it is a life-long commitment, one filled with isolation and the, eventual, evolution that many consider the shrugging off of one's humanity.
We all know what Jeroth chose, and I go into such great detail because...it was he who had the unfortunate first encounter with our thief. The whistle had barely left his lips when it was silenced, but we heard it just the same. Kera and I arrived at Jeroth's crumpled form at the same time. For a moment, I thought my friend was dead, but Kera's violent shaking woke him from his unconscious state in an instant. Blood caked his nose and mouth and a glance at his right hand was all I needed to see that it was very, very broken. Jeroth was, in his own words, a "lover" not a "fighter." So we should have known he stood no chance of slowing down the thief.
I looked up and saw that the interloper had indeed cut through a window, but there was no sign of a rope for which they would no doubt have had to use to descend to the floor nearly thirty feet down.
"The damned burglar dropped almost right on top of me," Jeroth spat blood out onto the floor, "I was on my arse, hand a-flame, by the time I knew what was going on." He grunted, lips peeling back to reveal blood-stained teeth.
"I'm going after them," I said, giving a cursory nod to my two friends, little did I know it would be the last time we ever spoke.
It wasn't easy to follow the intruder. In fact, I think they and I went very different routes to the same destination. I had to stop frequently to throw myself into the shadows to avoid patrolling Death-Dealers, looking back it might have made things far easier had I just come out and told them what was happening, but then I would not be here telling you this story, children. Don't look at me like that. I said they erased memories of those who were kicked out, didn't I? Yes, now you're getting it.
I reached the main chamber doors, two massive iron devices decorated with chains and images of the lord of death in action, reaping the masses with his dripping scythe. Through the thick iron I could hear the clerics chanting the ritual, and thought muted, it sent a chill up and down my spine. I stepped back and looked up and saw, to my chagrin, an open window at the very top of the doors. This intruder was like a spider.
I studied the wall around the doors and found several stones sticking from the wall about four feet above my head. I took a deep breath, knowing what I had to do. I backed up against the opposite wall, standing as straight as I could. It was about twelve feet from me to the wall with the climbing stones. I cast off my robes, now standing only in my night-clothes, a simple cotton shirt and pants which allowed me far more freedom of movement. Another deep breath, then I charged forward. To this day I don't think I've preformed a feat of athleticism equal to the one that I did then. My fingers gripped the slippery stones, all of my work on the farm finally paying off. I pulled myself up, holding back a grunt. It was no rope climbing in the barn, like my brothers and I did back in the day, but the arm, hand and finger strength still played a part. I could still feel the warmth of the intruder's hands on the stones as I climbed, it was only sort of reassuring.
I reached the top sooner than I expected, and peered through the open glass window wearily, both worried about the height and about seeing things I shouldn't, namely the ritual. The drop was probably a good fifteen feet, while the room itself stretched a good one hundred twenty five feet from one end to the other. On the other end, doused in dim orange and red light was the circle of chanting clerics. I could hear their words more clearly now, and although I didn't recognize the language in which they sang, the words pierced my chest and squeezed my heart. It was very hard to breath. No, I cannot repeat what I heard, children, and you would not want to know anyway.
As I pulled my gaze from the clerics, I saw, still in the rafters, the small, lithe form of the intruder. They were also unwillingly enraptured by the ritual. I tested my weight on the glass and iron of the open window, and it didn't even wiggle under my weight, and judging by their look, I had to have a good fifty or so pounds on the intruder.
I moved from the glass to the wooden beam just in time to see the intruder break free of the enchantment and turn towards me. Their eyes were wide with shock, and I saw that they were stark violet in color. I pointed at the intruder and made a gesture telling them to give up. The intruder's eyes narrowed and I swear they were laughing. They winked and turned their back to me. In the time it took me to take one step, the intruder was already near the back of the room.
Since I knew where they were going, and was sure there was no "back way" out, I concentrated on keeping my balance. Falling from here would kill me if I fell wrong, and maim me if I fell "right." Then there was staying quiet enough to not draw the attention of the clerics. Let me say this about the Pale Heart Purification ritual, children, it is very good that it is not practiced outside the Death Temples, because the pale, putrescent thing I saw writhing in the middle of the circle still haunts my dreams to this day, though not nearly as much as the thing that came next.
I reached the other end of the chamber with very little trouble. That is until I looked up and saw the intruder waiting for me. I gasped and almost lost my balance, and then I heard the intruder laugh. The light, feminine giggle caught me off guard and I saw the intruder had pulled her mask down. Dark red locks peaked from beneath the mask that wrapped around her head, the color matching her lips that curled into a feline smile. Her violet eyes narrowed as she leaned forward on the tips of her toes towards me.
Her voice was soft, and carried a hint of the Iritol accent, with which the people of the Southern Islands in the Great Salt Sea speak, "You've got balls, amat mortem," she spoke those last words in the Old Language, one I had barely begun to study since my apprenticeship. It meant death lover. Her grin widened, lips pulling back to reveal a straight row of teeth that were a bright shade of white. "Let me warn you now, handsome, back off now before you get hurt." Her hand fell to a pair of ivory daggers that were pinned to her belt.
"I-I can't let you take the Most High's remains," I said, suddenly feeling not so confident in myself.
The woman turned quickly on her heels, laughing, "Maybe, but you will anyway." She looked over her shoulder at me, "Stay out of my way." The tone in her voice sent a chill down my spine, and she was gone, dancing along the wooden beams, before I could get another word in. She moved with the grace of an acrobat and in that moment I understood how she broke into the museum.
Hesitation filled me, I knew I would be no match for her in combat, even if I managed to get close enough. The brawls I got in as a young man in the community where my family farmed was nothing compared to this. We were boys and girls drunk on the grain alcohol of our elders, drunk and determined to prove our prowess. One gaze at the daggers on the thief's belt reminded me of how serious things were now, and how they weren't back then. I tightened my grip on the beam where I crouched, sweat forming on my forehead. To say that I am a brave man would be incorrect, to say I'm not the smartest would be slightly accurate. Perhaps it was a mixture of bravery and stupidity that allowed me to gather my senses and go after the thief.
The room behind the ritual chamber was known as Xanth's Throne Room, where the Lord of Death once sat and ruled over our world with his cold, uncaring hand. The throne itself was made out of the skulls and bones of thousands of the dead, some of them from species that no longer exist in our world. I had only ever seen pictures of it in books, and it was much larger than I could have imagined. Truly, the being that once occupied it must have been terrifying.
I saw movement behind the throne, a familiar, dark cloaked figure with dark red hair. She had used some kind of grappling device to lower herself to the ground and it still dangled in the air nearby. It was a device like I had never seen-three metal prongs had dug into the ancient wood without even splintering it and the rope felt more like silk. I waited until she was out of sight to grab onto the rope and slide down. As soon as my feet hit the ground the rope gave out in my hands. I looked up to see the metal hooks dissolving themselves and the rope was doing the same, burning down like a fuse. I dropped it before it finished and petered out. There would be no going back now.
I slipped behind the throne and saw the small door that lead into the Pit standing wide open. The Pit is the place where the bones of the dead sacrificed in Xanth's name are cast. Footprints in the dust told me the thief went inside, though there was really no other place she could go. Perhaps she thought herself rid of me. I took a deep, shaking breath, and followed.
It was my first, and in the end only, time in the pit. I had heard rumors about it, of course, but they did it very little justice. In the middle of the room was an enormous circle of stones surrounding a hole. This pit was filled nearly to the seventy foot ceiling with bones-skulls, ribcages, legs, and arms...all sorts. It is said the Pit is near-bottomless, and if that's true then the sheer number of remains needed to fill it as it had been is truly terrifying. To my left and right were equally gigantic braziers, far larger than any person I've ever known, and each of them was filled with coals burning brightly with green arcane fire. There were four of them, forming a square around the pit. Chains hung from the ceiling, each holding snaking constructs made of bone that looked like arms, each tipped with a hand and five clawed bone-fingers. These arms plunged into seemingly random places in the bone pile. High up on the ceiling were words carved in a script I did not, and still do not, know. Each symbol seemed carefully carved and staring at them made my eyes hurt, down through the nerves and all the way into my brain.
The thief stood eight feet in front of me, near the edge of the Pit, motionless and wide eyed, staring up at the construct. My inner voice screamed at me, telling me to grab the woman while she was awe-struck, but my body absolutely refused to move. I was just as petrified as she.
I don't know how long we stood there, despite my heart beating excruciatingly loud in my ears I didn't think to count them. Nausea turned my stomach over and over again, my dinner and all the coffee I had drank previously to stay awake threatened to make a return trip the way it came in. It felt wrong to be in the Pit, not because I was an apprentice, but because I was alive. The blood in my veins and bile in my stomach was enough to remind me I did not belong.
No doubt the woman thief felt the same, and I look back on this now as her being far stronger than I in the end. She turned suddenly to flee, I could see the fear in her wide, violet eyes as a screech of terror formed on her lips. Until she saw me. Our eyes locked and whatever spell the Pit held over me was temporarily broken. She frowned, eyes narrowing and I returned the glare, spreading my legs out to ready myself to catch her if she tried to slip by.
"You...you're not going anywhere," I said louder than I intended. I balled my hands into fists and held them up. "Your desecration of this holy site will...will not go unpunished."
The woman's fear didn't leave her eyes as her face grew increasingly furious, she spoke to me as a cornered animal might, "My only mistake tonight has been the last minute hesitation I felt until this very moment. I'm going to gut you, boy, and claim the prize I've come for. Your Lord of Death is nothing! You worship a monster!"
Now, I've never been one for zealotry, children, but hearing her say those words sparked a fire in me that I had until then never known. Now, I had an anger to match hers. We leapt at one another at the same time, locking our arms, grappling. My farmboy training somehow matched up with whatever training she had as a thief as we pushed against one another with neither of us really gaining any ground. She swept her left leg up and smashed her heel into my kneecap, sending a sharp pain up and down my entire leg. Yes, lovelies, that's why I use a cane today. But I didn't buckle, instead I used that moment to throw her off balance. I pushed her with all of my might, sending her flailing backwards. Before she could recover I charged forward, head down, to wrap my arms around her waist. She screamed in surprise as I slammed her down hard onto the stone floor, I heard her ribs snap from the force of it.
I scrambled back as she writhed on the floor, finally becoming aware of my own injured leg. I went down onto my good knee involuntarily, rubbing my bad one. The woman rose to her feet while I was still nursing my own injury, blood leaked from the corner of her mouth and one of her nostrils as her violet eyes burned holes into me. The rage was real, I could feel it as if she were standing next to me. Clearly, she did not expect any resistance, much less in an ignorant farm boy like myself. From the back of her belt the thief produced one of her ivory daggers.
"You should have stayed out of my way, boy," the thief hissed, eyes narrowing as she closed in.
"And you should have stayed away," I said, only the voice coming from my mouth was not my own. I slapped my hand over my mouth and looked to the woman with wide eyes.
She had frozen in place as well, looking as puzzled and frightened as I.
The voice from my mouth continued, muffled not in the slightest by my hand, "You desecrate sacred ground, thief." I placed my other hand over the first, pressing hard against my own mouth, but the voice continued on, "This vessel has done well, but not enough. We will intervene." Every ounce of pain in my body vanished as something took over and made me stand up. As I did this, the woman took a step back.
Do not think poorly of my story-telling skills, children, as I recount what happened next. I can remember it, but a haze floats over the memory, and I can't help but look back on it the way one does a particularly vivid dream. A horrendous sound filled the entire chamber, it was as if a thousand horns were being played at once. Whatever had control of my body departed and I moved my hands from my mouth to my ears in a futile attempt to block out the sound. The very ground beneath our feet flexed, making the stone seem like cloth. The woman screamed in tandem but it was lost in the roaring.
In the corner of my eye I saw the back door from whence we came burst open and a dozen high-ranking priests, including Instructor Errol, flood the room-they seemed strangely unaffected by the sound, and were shouting and waving their hands. Though none moved closer to me or the thief, instead they spread in a wide circle around the chamber, watching with identical horror.
From the bone pit came a crashing sound and, like water, bones began to flow down from the top to spread all along the floor around our feet. I tried to move but my legs would not obey. The impossible roaring continued and I felt blood beginning to pool against my hands. Then something within the bone pile moved, something long and slender, making the bones ripple and clatter against one another. The chains holding the enormous arms began to shake and clatter and, to everyone's horror, the claws at the end of each began to flex and twist. It was then that I noticed my eyes were beginning to bleed as well.
The horns suddenly became silent and were instantly replaced by a clearly unnatural roar that I can only akin to metal grating against metal. I sit here before you now, children, still amazed that I did not go deaf and insane in that moment.
A skull the size of the giant one embedded in the main gate emerged from the bone pile, sending bones of every size and shape flying in every direction all over the room. Four twisted black and lime green horns sprouted from its head like a crown of ancient trees, with branches that sported the most unholy fruit imaginable-gasping and chattering skulls filled with pale white-green light, dripping yellow and red gore. The eyes of the giant skill itself were black and empty as the Abyss, yet I could feel whatever was inside those holes turn to the thief and I. The thief screamed, pulling at her hair as her teeth fell from her mouth; I screamed, feeling the pain in my knee a thousand fold and the almost irresistible desire to claw out my own eyes; Instructor Errol and the priests screamed, falling to their knees in reverence and prayer, beating themselves mercilessly with their own fists. It was all we could do.
The massive arms wrestled free of their chains and slammed onto the ground with such force that the rest of us were thrown about like ragdolls from the aftershocks.
The Skull moved as if taking a deep breath. "You. Dare?" It shook with each word and a rancid, burning air buffeted my whole body. The voice was deafening and shook my heart beneath my ribcage in such a manner I was sure it was going to explode. The arms jerked once more, moving up and hovering over the thief and me. I felt my feet leave the ground and looked down to see I had been instantly transported halfway up to the ceiling...the bone-thief was hovering in front of me, twisting violently against whatever force held us, but unable to break free.
I heard the woman scream something, saw foam and spittle fly from her now toothless mouth. Her violet eyes were red and ran with blood instead of tears. Her resistance didn't last long: her body jerked one last time, sending her limbs in impossible directions as her head twisted around completely on her shoulders. I gazed into her now dead eyes, which were almost all white now, and into her face, now forever frozen in terror with her mouth hanging open and her tongue hanging swollen and bloody from her cracked lips.
I admit, children, this was when I closed my eyes. A sickening, wet tearing sound assaulted my ears, making every muscle in my body shrink in repulsion. Then there was silence. No more horns or metal against metal. I opened my eyes and looked down to see I was still afloat but the thief entirely gone. Instead, the Skull was staring at me silently from the pile. I tried not to stare at it, but it invaded my entire field of view.
A hollow voice echoed in my head, shaking my brain in my skull, "Defender of the Faith. What is your wish?"
I writhed in the invisible grip of my god, unable to speak or think. Instead, images from my childhood flashed before my eyes: laughing with my brothers as we wrestled in the barn, working with my father to feed the livestock in the sweltering summer sun, sitting with my mother in front of the fire during the winter as a child where she told me fantastic stories of adventure.
"What is your wish?" the voice in my head hissed again, this time I sensed impatience.
So I screamed without thinking, "I want to go home!" The words left my mouth before I could stop them, and I while I am glad now to have said them, I was instantly filled with shame then.
Silence once again fell over the chamber, even Errol and the other priests had ceased their genuflecting and were looking at me with wide eyes.
"So be it." the voice echoed in my head...and then everything went black.
I paused my story to look over my grandchildren, who sat utterly spellbound by my story. I felt unseasonably hot and found sweat pouring down my face in thick, salty trails. The little one sitting on my lap had her mouth open as if to say something, but was just like her brothers and cousins.
"The next thing I knew, I was lying in bed...at home...surrounded by my family, including distant cousins I had not seen in over a decade. I sat up with a shout, sending them all shuffling back out of my reach. It took me nearly an hour to realize I was awake and not asleep, perhaps it would have been longer had I not still been dressed in my apprentice robes and bloodied from my tangle with the thief. According to my elder brother, your Great Uncle Barron, I appeared from nowhere on the doorstep, curled in the fetal position covered in a mysterious white dust and weeping blood. He and our father had flown me to my bed and no one had touched me since. They pelted me with questions, but I claimed amnesia and that was enough for them. When they left me to myself, I found I had something clutched tightly in my fist-it was a small symbol of Xanth, an emerald skull with obsidian eyes. Another part of my reward for my service in His name." I swept my hands in a grand gesture, "That little thing set our family up for life, lovelies, and it is with those funds that I started the bakery you see today and why you are all allowed to live in those fancy homes and go to those well to do schools." The children murmured amongst themselves. "But it wasn't the only thing I was left with, look, children," I drew back my left sleeve, revealing the brand left by the Lord of Death on my shoulder: crossing scythes.
"Grampa Basil, look!" screamed Milli, gods bless her soul, her eyes as wide as dinner plates.
I turned to look at the brand and found it was glowing green, with thin wisps of smoke rising from the outline. The children screamed as one and fled the room, the sound of their bedroom doors slamming following seconds later.
The burning fire beside me crackled and sent a familiar shaped shadow dancing across the wall. I knew right away who it was. The Bone-Thief.