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Authors: Jonathan Moeller

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Dark Fantasy, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Historical, #Myths & Legends, #Greek & Roman, #90 Minutes (44-64 Pages)

Ghost Relics

BOOK: Ghost Relics
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 GHOST RELICS

Jonathan Moeller

Description

Caina Amalas is the Ghost circlemaster of Istarinmul, the leader of the Emperor's spies in the city. She is a master of stealth and disguise, and faces foes of terrible power. 

So when an ancient relic of necromantic sorcery is discovered, Caina must destroy it before it kills uncounted thousands of people.

Starting with her...

Ghost Relics

Copyright 2014 by Jonathan Moeller.

Published by Azure Flame Media, LLC.

Cover image copyright Prochasson Frederic | Dreamstime.com & Dan Breckwoldt | Dreamstime.com.

Ebook edition published September 2014.

All Rights Reserved.

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the author or publisher, except where permitted by law.

Ghost Relics

Caina had been the Ghost circlemaster of Istarinmul for little over a year, and she had built up a small circle of allies and informants. Some of them were wealthy and powerful, like an Anshani silk merchant who owed her a favor, or an officer of the watchmen she had saved from a bribery charge. Most of them were men and women of common means and birth, like an elderly widow of the Old Quarter Caina had rescued, or a freed gladiator she had befriended. 

And a few of her informants were simply insane. 

One such informant was a one-eyed elderly man with seven fingers who supported himself by selling cakes and tea on the streets to the various clerks and scribes who worked for the hakims and the wazirs of the Padishah’s government. The old man muttered a constant stream of sing-song doggerel, but apparently had a perfect memory. After Caina had helped him drive off some robbers, he was more than happy to tell Caina everyone who came and went from the Padishah’s Golden Palace, knowledge which had proven useful often. 

Perhaps the most capable and the maddest of Caina’s allies was Nerina Strake. She was a wraithblood addict, a widow, and the best locksmith in Istarinmul and perhaps anywhere else. Nerina had accompanied Caina into Grand Master Callatas’s Maze, and had been so disturbed by the things she had seen in the Master Alchemist’s laboratory that she had joined the Ghosts. She had taken a wound during the escape, and Caina wanted to check on her.

So Caina donned a disguise and went to Nerina’s shop in the Cyrican Quarter.

###

One of the pleasant things about visiting Nerina was that Caina could actually dress as a woman.

She spent most of her time wearing men’s clothing and pretending to be man, using the freedom of movement that granted her. Callatas had placed an absolutely enormous bounty upon her head, but he thought that the Balarigar, the master thief that had terrorized the Slavers’ Brotherhood, was a man. Neither Callatas nor the Slavers’ Brotherhood nor the Grand Wazir nor any of the other powerful men she had crossed had any idea that she was a woman.

So she hoped. 

Yet constantly masquerading as a man, disguising her voice and changing her mannerisms and gestures was more exhausting than she had thought. She could never quite relax, could never lower her guard. Given the number of assassins and bounty hunters hunting for her, that was likely a good thing. 

But Nerina knew she was a woman, so to disguise herself Caina needed only to don a blue dress, a matching headscarf, a set of sandals, and leather boots. The dress’s sleeves were loose enough to hide throwing knives, and she concealed a pair of daggers in the boots’ hidden sheaths. 

She made her way unnoticed through the streets of Istarinmul and came to Nerina’s shop. It occupied a street lined with blacksmiths, the air sharp with the smells of coal smoke and hot metal. Nerina owned a three-story building, and unlike most of the shops, she kept her workshop on the second floor and used the ground level for storage. Likely her quarters were on the top floor, but from what Caina had seen of Nerina, the woman went without sleep for days at a time.

The front door stood ajar.

Caina frowned, one hand dipping into a sleeve to grip a throwing knife. Nerina never left her door ajar. Thieves were a constant problem in Istarinmul, and both Nerina’s debts and her utter tactlessness had earned her numerous enemies. Caina drew a throwing knife, concealing the weapon in her palm, and glided up the front steps in silence. Beyond the front door lay a small sitting room, dusty and disused, with wooden steps leading up to the second floor. Caina heard voices from above, both Nerina’s and the voice of a man she did not recognize. Most likely Nerina was meeting with a client. 

But Caina had not survived this long by discarding caution.

She climbed the stairs to Nerina’s workroom in silence.

The workroom had not changed since her last visit, and remained possibly the single most cluttered chamber that Caina had ever seen. Three long wooden tables ran the length of the room, each one sagging beneath the weight of tools, half-assembled locks, various mechanical contraptions, and notes. One wall held slates covered with scrawled equations written in chalk, while shelves adorned another. A wooden cabinet, the door open, held papers secured in leather folders, and high windows looked down upon the courtyard behind the shop. Iron shavings and sawdust covered the floor in a fine carpet.

Nerina herself stood near one of the slates, scribbling an equation in chalk. She was a short, gaunt woman in her late twenties, with a tangled mass of red hair and the eerie blue eyes of a wraithblood addict. She wore a leather apron over a loose shirt, dusty trousers, and heavy boots, and a set of magnifying lenses and goggles had been pushed up over her sweaty hair.

“No,” said Nerina. “Which is the ninth time I have said it, and the ninth time you have ignored my answer. Clearly your mathematical prowess is no sharper than your persuasive ability.”

“But permit me to persuade you, dear lady,” said the man standing before her. 

He was Anshani, with curly dark hair, dark skin, and a beard trimmed to a neat point. His fine robes marked him as a merchant, but his boots were worn and dusty, and the scimitar and dagger at his belt had clearly seen much use. Yet the robes looked new. He also had daggers hidden up his sleeves and another in his boot, which was more precaution than an average Anshani merchant usually took. 

“Will you not let me tell you of the riches that await you?” said the Anshani man, gesturing as he spoke. Caina suspected that he was trying to charm Nerina, which ought to be amusing. “Come with me and open the locks, and I shall pay you a third part of the treasure that awaits within the chest. Jewels and gold beyond count! Ancient scrolls covered in forgotten secrets! Art and statues to dazzle the eye!” 

“All of this within a single chest, Khamil,” said Nerina, “seems mathematically improbable.” 

“Come with me to the Shining Scimitar,” said Khamil, “and you shall see the truth of my words, my dear lady.” Caina knew the Shining Scimitar. It was a disreputable tavern in the slums of the Anshani Quarter, and no legitimate merchant would stay there. 

“No,” said Nerina, not looking up from her slate. 

“But…”

“No,” said Nerina. “Stop wasting valuable time. This is the twelfth time you have asked me to accompany you and open this lock, and this is the twelfth time I have said no. You have wasted eight hundred and thirty-nine words attempting to change my mind, and another five thousand would fail to alter the balance of the equation.” 

“You…counted my words?” said Khamil. “Then I am reaching you with my eloquence! I shall…”

“Go away,” said Nerina.

Khamil frowned and took a step closer, and the man looming over Nerina scowled.

Nerina’s bodyguard Azaces was nearly seven feet tall, dark-bearded and clad in the brown robes of the Sarbian desert nomads. The hilt of a two-handed scimitar rose over his right shoulder, and his massive arms allowed him to wield that weapon as easily as a smaller man might swing a knife. His tongue had been removed years ago, and he communicated through expressions that ranged from mildly angry to murderously angry. Right now he looked moderately angry, and Khamil took the hint. 

“Yes, well, you clearly need time to consider,” said Khamil. He turned to go. “I shall depart, and return once you…”

He saw Caina, and a wide smile came over his face.

“Greetings,” he said. “I did not see you there.”

“Ciara?” said Nerina, using the name Caina had given her. 

Khamil bowed over Caina’s hand and planted a dry kiss upon her fingers. “You must be Mistress Strake’s sister. Surely there could not otherwise be two women of such loveliness in this benighted city.” 

“No, we’re not sisters,” said Caina. 

“Friends, then?” said Khamil. “Perhaps you can make her see wisdom, yes? Great rewards will come if she but opens my chest.”

“Your chest, sir?” said Caina. “Are you offering your heart so readily?” Azaces snorted. “I am told that is unwise.”

Khamil laughed. “Clever. No, I merely have a jammed lock, and I wish for Mistress Strake to open it.”

“No,” said Nerina, still scribbling her equations. 

“Very well,” said Khamil, bowing. “Until next time.”

He left without another word. 

“Friendly fellow,” said Caina, crossing to the window and peering through the shutters. She saw Khamil pacing back and forth in the street below. At first she thought he was working up the nerve to come back, but she saw him looking at the windows and the doors, marking their positions.

As if he planned to break in later. 

He saw her looking, grinned, and walked away.

“He is not,” said Nerina. She turned away from the slate, wincing a bit as she put the weight on her left leg. “He talks too much. He’s boring. Additionally, his beard is not evenly trimmed, with creates a displeasing mathematical disharmony in his appearance.”

Caina looked at Azaces, who rolled his eyes.

“Additionally,” said Nerina, adjusting one of the instruments on her table, “he used to work with my father.”

“Did he, now?” said Caina, her amusement vanishing. Nerina’s father Niall Strake had been one of the most successful slave traders in Istarinmul until his enemies had assassinated him. He had also forcibly addicted Nerina to wraithblood in order to keep his brilliant daughter under control. Any associate of Niall Strake’s would be dangerous.

“He didn’t mention it,” said Nerina. “Likely he thought I do not remember him, but I do. Khamil is a mercenary and a petty thief…hardly a daring master thief like the Balarigar.” Again Azaces snorted. “He used to do Father’s dirty work for him – intimidating people, minor robbery, forgeries, and so forth. After Father was assassinated, Khamil fled for Anshan, lest Father’s enemies come for him. I am frankly surprised he returned to Istarinmul. It seemed most improbable.” 

“What did he want?” said Caina.

“For me to pick a lock,” said Nerina. “Apparently he has a Strigosti trapbox with a jammed lock.”

“That’s a peculiar thing for a common thief to have,” said Caina. “They are hideously expensive.” “The balance of probability indicates that he stole it,” said Nerina. “He claims he joined an occultist’s expedition outside of Anshan, one that raided the ruins of Old Maat. Supposedly the box is full of ancient Maatish artifacts that…”

“What?” said Caina.

Nerina trailed off, and Azaces looked at her. 

“The last time you looked like that,” said Nerina, “I was almost killed.”

“Maatish artifacts,” said Caina. “You’re sure he said that?” Nerina nodded. “That’s not good.”

“Why not?” said Nerina. “Surely some dusty old statues and tablets are no threat to anyone.”

“Maat was ruled by necromancer-priests of great power, so powerful they tried to turn some of their pharaohs into living gods,” said Caina. “They left some of their relics behind, scrolls of potent sorcery and weapons of great arcane strength. They’re extremely dangerous.”

“How dangerous?” said Nerina.

“One scroll,” said Caina. “The spell upon one scroll almost killed everyone in Malarae.” She remembered Maglarion’s voice, remembered the sickly green light of his massive bloodcrystal. “The day of the golden dead? All those corpses rising in golden fire to kill?” Nerina and Azaces both looked grim at the memory. No one who had lived through the day of the golden dead would ever forget it. “That was based upon spells of Maatish necromancy.” The Moroaica herself, the woman who had burned Maat to ashes and had wrought the day of the golden dead, had been a creation of the necromancer-priests. 

“Would Khamil have possession of such a relic?” said Nerina. 

“Perhaps. But I cannot take that chance. Even a mediocre sorcerer could work great harm with a Maatish relic,” said Caina. “I suspect Khamil and his associates brought the relics here in hopes of selling them. Easier to do it here than in the Empire. More rogue sorcerers, since the College of Alchemists does not police renegade sorcerers as severely as the Magisterium.” 

Azaces made a rumbling noise.

“True,” said Nerina. “It is also probable that Khamil was simply lying.”

“I know,” said Caina. “But even the possibility of a Maatish relic is too dangerous to ignore. I’m going to find out the truth.”

“Shall I accompany you?” said Nerina. “I can open any locks you encounter.”

“Later,” said Caina. “The neighborhood around the Shining Scimitar is a hard place. There’s no reason to take you and Azaces into danger until I know more. For all we know Khamil was hoping to kidnap you and the story about the Strigosti trapbox was only a ruse.” She thought for a moment. “Stay here, keep the doors locked, and keep an eye out for trouble. Khamil looked like he was planning to rob your workshop. Perhaps his entire story was simply a ruse to scout your shop for a robbery.”

“If he does return,” said Nerina, “Azaces shall be on hand to greet him.” 

Azaces’s scowl indicated just what kind of greeting he would give Khamil.

Confident that Nerina was in good hands, Caina left for the Shining Scimitar.

###

The Shining Scimitar was not the sort of place a woman could go alone, so Caina stopped at one of her safe houses and changed.

She had established safe houses scattered throughout the city, stocked with supplies, disguises, and weapons. Given the size of the bounty upon her head and the number of people who wanted her dead, it had seemed a prudent preparation. Caina entered one of her safe houses, a rented room over a seedy apothecary’s shop, and donned the disguise of an Anshani caravan guard, a patterned robe of black and red over the leather armor and ragged boots and trousers of a mercenary. She was too pale to pass as Anshani, but a heavy turban, scarf, and fake beard hid most of her face. To a casual glance, she would look like any other Anshani caravan guard come to find cheap wine and whores at the Shining Scimitar.

She finished her disguise, checked her weapons and other tools, and departed.

Night had fallen by the time she reached the bazaar where the Shining Scimitar stood. The various business and merchant stalls had closed for the evening, but the Scimitar was still open, firelight and raucous laughter pouring into the night. Various groups of Anshani men stood around the bazaar, drinking and talking and glaring at each other. The Anshani were divided into various clans, each of which had a millennia-long history of enmity with the other. Sometimes the clans went to war with one another, which in Istarinmul, meant that the impoverished denizens of the Anshani Quarter erupted into riots, which explained why the Padishah spent so much money on public gladiatorial games and chariot races. Caina’s red-and-black robe could have belonged to a half-dozen different clans, and she slipped unnoticed through the various crowds and into the tavern. 

BOOK: Ghost Relics
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