“There must be some kind of way out of here,” said the joker to thief. He absently tapped the stone wall across from the iron door that sealed their shared cell before returning to pacing out the six steps that encompassed the width of their entrapment.
“Why fret?” Asked the other man from under his dark wide brimmed hat. His coat was of green leather in a long cut nearly to his knees. His grey knee-high leather boots concealed most of his exposed lower body, and seated on the floor with his back to the wall, he looked very much like a pile of mossy boulders.
The joker stopped pacing, in the dimming light his white crescent-moon hat and pale face were offset by his comical suit of black and red diamonds and his curled-toe white shoes. “I served my liege loyally. I poured wine and entertained traders from the furthest Duchies in the City. I managed farms across the width of his domain. I oversaw his counting house, and doubled his production and his income. None of his promises were kept. None. I’ve been tricked and cheated. And now I rot while he celebrates his increased fortune.”
“That’s no reason to get so excited,” replied the thief. “There are many philosophers throughout the history of the City, that feel that life is just a cosmic joke. You’ve played the punchline, or so you say; but a productive servant has little to fear once his master remembers his former success.”
The joker narrowed his eyes behind the alabaster mask, “Tell me, my philosophical friend, why are you in this un-flushed bunghole beneath the Citadel of the Lord of Gazes?”
“I came following tales of something that belongs to me. A tool that I made for myself many years ago. It was stolen from me, and I’ve been crossing the City, duchy by duchy, listening to drunken whispers and children’s tales, trying to find it before it can be used in ways I had never intended.”
The joker chuckled a dry, insincere noise, little more than a cough. “My master has no patience for any who would take what he thinks belong to him. If he possesses your ‘tool’ then he’s not likely to part with it.”
The thief smiled to himself under his hat. “Oh, I’m not concerned about recovering my property. The finding of it was the difficult task, the taking is a matter of moments and nothing more.”
The joker cocked his head, downward curling tip of his hat touching his shoulder. “If you have such confidence, and such prowess, then I ask again: what are you doing in this Gods forsaken place?”
“Because I’m far more curious how it was stolen in the first place, and how it came to be here. I admit that I had suspected one of my long-lost brothers to be the culprit, but I see now that they were not to blame. That leaves more difficult suspects, and much more difficult choices once the guilty is found.”
“So you don’t think my master guilty? And you let him toss you down here to be forgotten like yesterday’s piss? What can you learn from that? You’re not a thief, you’re a fool.”
“A fine joke, no? But you and I have already been through that. This restful moment of distraction, in this quiet place without prying ears or surprise complications, is neither of ours fate. Let us not talk falsely now. The hour is getting late.”
The joker stood straight, abandoning his former slouch. Like white wax melting under a thousand candles, the white crescent moon hat and alabaster mask seemed to flow down the red and black checkered sleeve, forming a perfect white rod in the joker’s hand.
“I had thought it more a scepter than a tool. But I see the utility of it. I see how one could call it that. I simply call it power.”
The joker touched the wall with the rod, and it simply melted away, leaving a twenty foot shaft of perfectly smooth stone, running directly out to a hallway with torches burning around the corners.
“I can freeze anything so cold it will shatter with the lightest touch. I can burn any substance with a flame so hot that stone melts and sand turns to glass in an instant. I can drown a room in water, or steal the air from someone’s very lungs. I don’t know what jobs you intended such a tool to perform, but I can tell you that it has been of endless utility to me.”
The thief rose to his feet. “But the question remains, how did you come to posses it?”
“A gift, from a benefactress. She warned me that others would come to steal it away. I didn’t think to ask if they were its rightful owner, as, well, possession is really all of the law in this world, isn’t it?”
The joker reached out with the rod, stabbing at the thief. The thief simply held out his hand and grabbed the end of the rod. Slowly the rod melted, slipping out of the joker’s grasp and reforming, like a candle melting in reverse into a long, white curved sword.
“A matter of a moments, nothing more.”
“If a wise man steals a key to everything, the first thing he does is not look for every lock; the first thing he does is copy the key.” The black checkers across the joker’s suit slowly melted away and flowed down his sleeve, forming a long curving black blade.
- – -
The Duchy of the Marches was renowned far and wide for two things, the long wall of watchtowers that stretched far out of sight in either direction from the grand citadel where the Duke reigned, and the scorching heat that burned the sandgrass a charcoal black every summer.
The Marches had stood watch against the western frontier for hundreds of generations, since before the sun dimmed red in the noon-day sky. The broken moon was just beginning to rise over the endless ruins that covered the frontier. Broken towers and shattered walls crumbling across hundreds of leagues, a scant few hundred yards beyond the sandgrass strip that lined the foot of the watchtowers running north and south.
At the base of the grand citadel of the Lord of Gazes, is a gate as tall as twenty giraffmen of the east or more. The doors have not been closed in at least a thousand years, and no one knows for sure just how to close them if the need arose. Through the grand gate flowed every level of society one finds throughout the City. Women from every profession, men on every kind of errand, barefoot servants, thieving orphans and begging wretches, all gathered in one place, passing through one portal for an infinite variety of reasons.
Far below that grand gate, under hundreds of feet of stone, fed air through narrow grates covering shafts that spiraled down into unimaginable darkness, came a brilliant white light.
Where the white blade met the black blade’s edge, all the forces of creation and destruction in the universe collided with nearly cosmic force. The expanding shockwave simply rendered the first molecules it encountered into their constituent subatomic particles. The shock shell expanded out nearly a thousand feet, obliterating the gate and most of the eastern end of the citadel. Those who weren’t vaporized were crushed by the secondary shockwave that leveled the rest of the citadel and every structure for more than league in every direction.
Out of the blinding light floated two figures each holding long curved blade. The man with the long white blade landed quickly on the edge of the perfect hemisphere carved out of the ground. His attention turned to the man with the black blade, tumbling gracelessly through the sky. The man with the white blade redirected the gravitons of the man with the black blade back towards the earth, and then increased their mass and affinity, propelling him faster and faster towards the earth. Right as he was about to strike, he seemed to slow down. A perfect singularity had formed at the surface of the earth, with an event horizon boiling in an unseeable storm a few feet from his outstretched hand.
The man with the black blade was a quick study, and he suddenly shot away from the singularity and landed upright with only the slightest slide.
He shook his head, faced the man with the white blade, and launched himself impossibly quickly towards him, covering hundreds of spans in a few miliseconds.
A dozen feet from the man with the white blade he came to a sudden stop, the very air around him held static and unmovable. The man with the white blade stepped up to him, parting the static molecules with a gesture.
The man with the black blade smiled as the man with the white blade approached, “I found your key so limited, it’s power so small, I made a few improvements on the design.” His blade began to grow hazy, as though it was becoming fog. Black tendrils struck out from the fog, grasping the white blade. Slowly, like some kind of grasping slime, the black fog consumed the white blade, pulling from the other man’s hand.
The unarmed man looked sadly at the man with the black blade. “Your mistake was simple. For you, the black blade is the source of your power. For me, the white blade is simply a tool that I imbued but a tiny fraction of my own power within, to make some tasks simpler or leverage other forces concurrently with my primary focus.”
The unarmed man turned his attention to the roiling black fog. He pursed his lips and blew a long breath towards it.
Where the breath met the fog, it began to fall like black snow on the ground. The breath enveloped the entire fog, and the white blade fell unharmed and was caught again with ease. The remains of the fog were carried away by the breeze, and nothing was left but a slight smell of ozone and charcoal carbon.
The man with the white blade looked at the man held fast before him. “Now. Let us discuss your benefactress. I would very much like to meet her.”
The unarmed man opened his mouth as if to speak, but the sound he made overwhelmed the man with the white blade, it stabbed him in his mind, and he doubled over in searing pain.
The unarmed man dropped to his knees, freed from the unseen bonds that held him fast. He laughed, and grasped a pendant that had been hidden under his outfit. With a flash, he disappeared.
- – -
Far to the north, two riders could just be seen riding south as fast as their mounts would carry them. One was a man, but seemed to be made entirely out of brass and copper. The other was a westerner with long blond hair and the typical hooked nose. The rode straight to the man with the white wax blade, now sitting calmly on a rock not far from the foot of the first standing watchtower along the northern wall.
“Master Savaan, I am glad to see you in good health. I see you recovered that which you had been seeking.” The westerner sounded every bit like the Academae graduate that he was. Darus was a loyal retainer, but not a particularly astute observer.
The metal man looked at the destruction laid out as far as the eye could see to the south. “Forte, what in the Empress’s name happened here?”
“Ah Tumblejack. Always asking the correct questions. About fifty thousand souls were ended because I miscalculated badly. Maybe more, I don’t really know how far the shockwave swept inside the duchy. I had expected him to take the fight to the frontier, not annihilate the citadel from the dungeons up.” Forte Sevaan gathered up his hat and looked up at the sky. “I’m pretty sure the energy I tapped lowered the area temperature by at least fifty degrees, maybe more. There’s going to be wicked storms from here to Ivysouth. It might snow in the Marches on midsummer. That will be one for the stories. We might want to make for the north as quickly as possible.”
“Of course.” Darus began shifting his pack and making room for Forte to take the saddle.
“But is the thief dealt with? One of your brothers, as you thought?”
“No, and no. The thief claimed a benefactress gave him the blade. And he was wearing the pendant of a Marionette, he jumped before I could stop him. He stunned me with some sort of word of power. I’ll have to see if I can work out what that was.
“But for now, we ride, and quickly. The hunt continues.”
“If you’ve recovered your blade, why pursue the interloper? Surely his benefactress will know of his defeat, and he likely won’t survive her wrath to risk exposure a second time.”
“Because a man wise enough to copy the key to anything, is wise enough to make more than one copy.”