September 11, 2003
Underground Struggle by Xeratal
"Aargh! Be careful, I can't see," the boy cried out. Something hard and
heavy struck his face. He reeled.
"This place is *supposed* to be a secret, so shut up." Someone spat the
words at him, someone close who smelled of sweat.
Cassius groaned, knowing that his tears would be hidden by the mask. His
cheek burned, and the only comfort came from the slight breeze. He rested
for a moment against the back of the horse. It felt like stone without the
saddles he was used to, but he could do little else to make himself more
comfortable with ropes tied tightly around his wrists. Maintaining his
balance was enough of a struggle.
"Halt. We're here now."
The owner of the voice pulled him off the horse. Cassius fell heavily to the
floor and found himself pulled upright. Sharp words were uttered not far in
the distance in hushed tones. The spiteful rope dug deeper into his wrists.
He tried to test the ropes that bound him but there was no give in them.
Despair grew in his soul. Even if there were any slack in the ropes, he
could hardly face a grown man, let alone an experienced fighter. Few
fifteen-year-old lads, if any, had any skill at arms, and his captor knew
his trade. Some hope remained in Cassius's thoughts as he repeated to
himself, 'It's not much further. You will survive.'
Someone pulled at him roughly, disrupting his thoughts and forcing him to
follow or fall. A lapse in his guide's control or carelessness allowed
Cassius to stumble at an unseen obstacle. He swallowed his resentment and
they continued. The air turned chill, and he could no longer feel the heat
of the sun. A heavy weight slammed near his feet, and Cassius unconsciously
stepped back. Coarse hands gripped his and guided them down into a hole and
onto a wooden slat. Sensing partially what the person wanted, and not
wanting to arouse the guide's temper, he lowered his legs down the hole
testing for a hold. They connected with a solid object.
"Good. Now watch your step," the man said, shoving him down.
Cassius fumbled in the dark in an effort to find the previous holds. It was
to no avail, as his bound wrists made it all but impossible. After falling
down several levels by Cassius's reckoning the man spoke; "That's better. We
're home now."
Cassius blinked in the torchlight and adjusted to the gloom as the hood was
ripped off his head. A sharp blade cut through his bindings, and he began to
rub at them, wincing slightly as feeling returned. He squinted against the
sudden light and blinked hard. In the flickering light, he could just make
out passages stretching out in four directions. As his eyes adjusted, he
began to see the erratic light of distant torches in their sconces. This
allowed him to see, if only barely, dark and hooded figures. They reminded
him of the worst parts of Trellor at night. It was never the dark you had to
be scared of. It was the people in the dark. He shivered.
"A fresh novice!"
Cassius peered around for the owner of the voice and saw a young lad,
possibly younger than him, watching him with interest.
"The First Master bids you to follow me," the lad said, muttering something
indistinguishable under his breath about someone called Nephal - or
something like that. Cassius was not given time to dwell on the lad's
mutterings, as the boy turned and walked away down a corridor.
Cassius looked around for options, but there were only a few menacing
figures in sight. They may have been watching him. He couldn't tell.
Desperately, he surveyed the chamber for his tormenter-come-guide, but if he
was there, the man had just become another menacing figure in the shadows.
Without enthusiasm, he caught up to the lad and followed. They walked for
several minutes through the tunnels, following the path left by the roughly
hewn stone blocks that formed the passage.
"In there." The lad pointed into a side room with his thumb and walked away.
Cassius opened the door slowly and looked around tentatively. Four faces,
each belonging to young lads, stared back at him. Their conversation had
apparently been disrupted.
"Ah. I'm new," Cassius said nervously, wondering what was going to happen.
The four exchanged glances. One pointed at a bed to the far right of the
room. "That one's free," he said.
Cassius nodded and walked over to it, collapsing on the hard mattress.
Realization struck him - whoever had taken him wanted him for something. If
they had wanted him dead then it would have happened a long time ago. What
did they want? A fresh novice? What did that mean? It didn't make sense to
free his bindings and give him a place unless they were confident he couldn'
He looked over to the others, wondering if they were captives just as much
as he was. They didn't seem to notice or care, intent on their conversation.
None of it made much sense, and Cassius felt his eyelids begin to close as
he watched. Weariness stole through his mind, calming his fears and forcing
him to concentrate.
".. he's called the Viper because he's cunning like a snake, enough to put
that fool Vonliege in his place." Cassius tried to focus on the words but
Cassius woke. It felt like morning but his eyes saw only darkness. How could
that be? He tried to move and felt stiff muscles and chafing on his wrists.
The previous day's events forced themselves into his mind and he winced. Now
that he could think properly, he recognized this place from the descriptions
in stories he had heard over fires where boys gathered. A secret society of
thieves, living beneath the ground and gaining their members from kidnap.
His mind drifted back.
The traders dropped him off with a cheery wave. They had been startled at
first to find him in their wares, but they took along him anyway. He didn't
look suspicious, and what was a lad to them? A man with a broad smile at the
trading post had given him a map. The smile was too broad, Cassius had
pondered, frowning at the thought. Still, he was in the City of Medievia and
away from his father. This was adventure, what they had talked about around
the fires. He saw the majestic sight of the castle floating above the center
of the city. It was the very stuff of legends, but more importantly it also
formed a handy landmark so that he could find the warehouse the man
suggested he visit. There was the promise of work there. Determined, he
A sliver of light penetrated the darkness and brought Cassius back to
reality. Someone opened the door and hissed, "Get up."
Against the will of his muscles, Cassius obeyed, straining to make out the
silhouette at the door. Three of the others followed him, but the fourth
remained in his bed. The man walked in like a ghost and made his way to the
bed. Cassius saw the glint of a dagger, reflecting light from the meager
illumination of the corridor. He heard a sudden gasp from the boy still in
"Almost had you that time Saenis. Almost." The man turned away and the
dagger glinted again as he sheathed it. "Enough games. Time to break your
Cassius stared, shocked, as the figure exited and then began to follow him.
He could see no other choice.
* * *
Several months passed in a cruel monotony of horror and brutality. The shady
figure, turned out to be called Nephalis and became the novice's instructor.
By pure luck, Cassius's roommate Saenis had narrowly avoided death twice.
"Keep your eyes on the target. Visualize your nemesis. Then throw," Nephalis
"Nephalis what do you..." a boy asked, but was cut short.
"What do I mean by nemesis?" the instructor asked. "The man or woman who has
crossed your path is your enemy. Some of you will eventually think of me in
such terms. It is warranted, as it would be if our noble leader Vonliege was
concerned," he finished, with more than a little sarcasm.
The name Vonliege rekindled Cassius's memory of the fateful night when he
had arrived. One boy had mentioned it, and since then he had heard it
mentioned many times. Cassius realized that he must be important if an
instructor hated him.
Silence enveloped them. What would happen if he did nothing? He did not want
to find out. A knife sprang from Cassius's hand, striking the wooden target
at the end of the range. Taking courage from his example, the others
followed suit. Knife after knife penetrated the target, yet the occasional
ping hinted at failure. Sweat slid down Cassius face, obscuring his vision
briefly as he pushed it away.
"Disgraceful. You call yourselves thieves?" their instructor demanded,
addressing the group. His words dripped venom, and his face showed contempt.
"You have done well enough to live. Get out of my sight and don't forget to
get something to eat." He turned and stalked off, appearing to melt into the
shadows after a few paces.
The end of the 'lesson', if coercion could be called that, was the signal
for the novices to move off to breakfast. Slowly, murmurs of conversation
started, a small sign of normality and thus a comfort in Cassius's mind.
"So who do you think is better - Nephalis or Vonliege?" a boy from Cassius's
room asked. Cassius ignored him and walked on; the boy was always asking
novices the same question. The voice sounded familiar. It struck Cassius
that the boy was the same one who had spoken about a viper the first night.
The boy persisted, "That's right! You're still new. You wouldn't know that
Vonliege, Nephalis and The Spider are the three masters who run this place."
Cassius frowned. How could he be considered new? He had been there for what
felt to be ages. However, he was intrigued. Cassius turned to face the other
novice. "What do you mean? Why would any of them be better?" Cassius asked
The boy stared at Cassius in disbelief. "It's just the way. One has to be
better. You'll see soon enough. Oh, and for future reference my name is
Cassius watched puzzled as the boy moved on to other gossip. "Why did people
have to use obscure references?" Cassius wondered. "What does 'soon enough'
* * *
Life raged all around him, yet the boy's eyes saw only the vertical
shimmering grey pool.
"It's only a portal, lad. You should have seen one before."
Indignant, the boy spun around to see who had ridiculed him. A graying
adventurer sat against a bubbling fountain, a smile crossing his face.
"Apparently not. To put it simply, just say the part of the city you want to
enter and step forward, magic will do the rest."
The boy thanked the adventurer and stepped forward, uttering a word. A shock
jumped through his body, combining with a sudden feeling of movement. Castle
Square with all its life was gone, only to be replaced by a shady and
dilapidated neighborhood. The boy suppressed a shudder and consulted his
map. He cheered at finding the right direction and started out down the
cluttered path. "First house, second house, third. It must be here," the boy
murmured. He walked in tentatively, feeling for any telltale signs. He
found a cold rung in a hole in the floor and descended.
Janus's obscure reference appeared to be fulfilled two weeks later and much
Cassius turned to watch a black clad figure stride arrogantly into the
poison training area. The figure's gaze flickered briefly to examine the
failure of an apprentice - Harald, Cassius thought the name was - sprawled
on the floor after taking the wrong antidote again. The black figure turned
briefly to whisper something to their temporary teacher Imrah, apprentice of
Nephalis. An undistinguished person, Imrah would fit into a crowd anywhere
with no problem. Only his intense dark eyes gave any hint of his true
nature. The black figure surveyed the novice thieves before slinking into
the shadows and disappearing from view.
"The First Master has called an assembly in his quarters. You will follow me
now and don't speak!" Imrah said.
A scene repeated itself in Cassius's mind, as it had constantly since the
day it happened. Nephalis, frustrated by Saenis's inability to wake on time,
plunging his dagger into the novice's chest. That had been less than a week
ago. The death of his roommate weighed heavily on Cassius's mind. There was
no refusal that didn't involve pain. Cassius fearfully paused to look at
Imrah. The man's eyes radiated a feeling of unpredictability and madness at
times. Intimidation had worked before and would do so again. The novices
followed Imrah out just as fervently as they would any master.
The novices flitted silently from shadow to shadow. In hushed tones, their
leader said, "Better. Next time half the world won't hear you. Remember, don'
t stare or maintain eye contact with anyone."
The novices passed under a doorway which appeared to share the same plain
boarding as any other. A sea of black assailed Cassius's senses,
disorientating him. He swayed shakily and brushed against another novice.
"Watch it!" The novice hissed at him.
"Sorry, sorry!" Cassius hastily answered. Out of the corner of his eye he
caught a scathing look from Imrah and, terrified, went silent.
"When the novices are seated we will start," boomed a loud voice. Cassius
glanced at Imrah. The apprentice led them to the front and gestured for them
to sit. Imrah's face remained impassive as he retreated to lean against the
chamber wall, clearing a path through the black figures.
The same voice as before spoke, "I have called all of you together because a
great opportunity has emerged. Our nemesis, the Order of the Veiled Society,
has been eradicated from Trellor." The man paused as if waiting for a
response. "The Veiled Society was inept, as we all know, and it's a wonder
they survived so long. On the other hand, we are not and will make quick
work of Trellor. Not that any of you could do anything, but does anyone
oppose this move?" The silence was so tense that Cassius could hear the
breathing of the lad next to him. One voice spoke out.
"Good decision Vonliege, although how do you propose we get past the gate
watchmen? They are notoriously strong, and as a group we're not entirely
inconspicuous." Cassius recognized the voice. That was his instructor,
Curiosity burned within Cassius, and he looked up to see three ornate chairs
in front of the gathering. Nephalis, a tall but wiry man with sunken eyes,
sat in the left one. Vonliege, who by all appearances looked every bit a
leader, with a heavy build and alert eyes, sat in the centre. On the right
of Vonliege sat a plain man, his strength evident but understated. Cassius
suspected that he must be The Spider. Nephalis met Cassius's gaze.
Terrified, Cassius averted his eyes and stared at the ground.
A new voice countered their instructor. "Don't sound so pleased Viper. There
are ways to pass the gate watchmen. Our members are not without skills to
sneak in through the trade entrance."
"So you say. Be it on your head 'First Master'." Nephalis curtly replied, as
if that ended his opposition. The three masters appeared to be at each
other's throats, yet after glancing around, Cassius realized that no one
seemed to find this surprising.
The booming voice continued, "Very well. In two months, we launch our
advance scouts. Assemble in the house above at the sound of the bell on that
Cassius observed that, as in entering the meeting, one's time of exit
depended on rank. Being ranked the lowest of the low, the novices had to
wait until everyone else had filed out. Finally, Nephalis's apprentice
addressed them, "You are dismissed for the day. Report to the cook at the
usual times and practice what you have been shown. That is all." Cassius
forced himself up and joined the milling group.
His thoughts were in turmoil. Trellor was his old home, yet he didn't feel
anything but pity or amusement at the thought of new crime group besieging
it from within. Images of his father's stern face came to mind, but they
faded quickly. No, he scolded himself. His old life was important. Antipathy
might have begun, but it hadn't taken over.
Cassius turned at the sound of a voice cursing. Resigned, he glanced around
to see who was after his blood this time. Blank faces scowled at him -
nothing unusual. The curse was not for him.
He descended the ladder and heard some cheering not much further on. Cassius
picked up his pace to find the origin of the commotion. He found it in a
crowd before him that was gathered around something. He tried to edge
forward only to meet resistance. Muttering under his breath at the nerve,
Cassius advanced. A boy still blocked him, but deliberately this time. On
impulse, Cassius lashed out, catching the novice in the temple. The boy
collapsed in a heap. Those in the immediate area retreated slightly, eyeing
Cassius warily. They gave him an unobstructed view. He smiled triumphantly
and saw the entertainment.
Two novices, both slightly bigger than Cassius, were facing each other as
they circled. Faint light from dying torches glinted off their weapons.
Murmurs nearby alerted Cassius to the fact that they were stolen. With a
new-found respect, Cassius looked on.
Beams of light sliced the darkness a few paces ahead. Looking up the boy,
found their origin and scrambled up into the false crate. As quietly as he
could, the boy pushed open the lid and jumped out. Pitch black surrounded
him. A spark flicked on the other side of the room. Faintly the boy heard a
ringing; experience served him in recognizing it as a blade-on-blade sound,
similar to that which he had heard during a duel in Trellor. A voice cried
out loudly and went silent.
Cassius turned to the nearest person and asked what the combatants were
"Those two got into an argument over who is the true First Master of crime -
Nephalis or Vonliege. My gold is on the dark haired one fighting for
As if his words were prophecy, the boy the stranger had referred to darted
to the right and slashed at his foe's arm. A crimson line opened and spilled
red drops onto the cold floor. The injured boy staggered back and grabbed at
the wound with his free hand. He held the hand of his injured arm palm up,
ceding the argument.
Even from his reasonably short stay in the place, Cassius had some idea of
the honor that existed between thieves. This boy's cowardly act shocked him
to no end. How could he commit to a cause and not follow through?
He was not granted time to dwell on the other novice's failings, though.
Footsteps drummed above them. The boys forgot about the excitement as fear
overcame them, and they went their separate ways. A few stopped to clap the
victor on his back before dispersing. Cassius stared at the shape of the
wounded boy in the dim corridor. Trembling, Cassius closed his eyes and
turned away before fate caught up with him.
The duel had awakened within him recognition of Nephalis's ambitions, and
tied together all the other pieces of confusion and betrayal. Cassius tried
to visualize what this place would be like under Nephalis and shuddered. It
wasn't possible to imagine that. Despite a slight concern over striking the
other boy, Cassius felt that Vonliege must be warned of Nephalis's treason.
Loyalty to Vonliege or not, Nephalis must not succeed.
* * *
Cassius softly closed the door and followed the line of red embers down the
passage, focusing intently on not stumbling and giving away his mission. He
had been delayed more than he would have liked, but after almost two months
of waiting, the majority of the thieves were occupied in preparations and he
could seek an audience with Vonliege unopposed. A small lantern illuminated
the ladder before him. Turning, he surveyed the area. Seeing no one, he
released his breath. The cold steel opened his senses as he mounted the
In the style he had been taught, Cassius backed onto the wall and into the
shadows the torches missed. Straining his memory, Cassius retraced the path
Imrah had led them down numerous times until he reached an intersection.
Somewhere in his mind he knew others were nearby, but he couldn't place
where in the darkness. Maybe he had been wrong about the reduced security.
Either they had not seen him, or they had no problem with his intrusion - in
either case, no one stopped him. The easy progress gave Cassius slight
An oil lamp flared in the passage ahead. It lit someone's face. Vonliege -
even at that distance Cassius could recognize him. Still hugging the
shadows, Cassius made towards the light. A loud snore blared from his left.
Cassius jumped back before he realized that it was the sentry. He smiled to
himself and moved on walking through the open doors leading up to Vonliege'
quarters. Sloppy - nobody had closed them in the confusion of travel
Fire lanced through his side. Cassius cried out and rolled away. His hands
clamped over the wound as he leaned against the stone wall for support. Pain
flooded over his terror. A figure loomed into sight. The Spider.
"I commend you. Most novices in you're position would be dead already." The
Spider watched Cassius thoughtfully, and then his expression hardened. "Why
are you here? You should not be here. No one is permitted to have an
audience with the First Master unless he agrees, not even the Second Master
has that privilege."
Cassius tried to push the pain away, to stop the blood leaking from the
wound. He failed. He tried to find the energy to speak, and his voice
trembled as he said, "What I have to tell him is important. I have to see
Vonliege now." He winced as the strain staying erect pulled at his wound,
and he moved his hands in an attempt to stem the growing trail of red.
Someone spoke from behind them. "You have to? I give the orders not you,
Cassius tried to turn, wincing as the pain overcame him. The Spider ignored
him, turning to look at Vonliege.
"Since you have my attention, what is it you want to tell me, boy?"
Weakly, Cassius relayed all that had happened to him regarding the signs of
unrest. Vonliege stared intensely at Cassius, until the novice looked away.
"Why would you care if Nephalis became leader instead of me?" Vonliege bit
off the words.
A blank expression crossed Cassius's face. The response was not what he had
expected, and forgetting his pain, he replied. "First Master, I take lessons
from him. His methods are," Cassius paused for a moment. "Chaotic at best.
He rarely explains anything." He groaned as the wound reopened with new
levels of pain. He continued speaking, forcing each word out between his
teeth. "Your system has order, and I would rather see that remain then the
misrule and chaos that Nephalis would bring."
A grin split the previously neutral face of the Spider as he laughed softly.
However, it was Vonliege who spoke, "Sincerity is not the virtue of a thief,
but endurance of pain is. For all the innocence you have, you know more than
you think." The master thief turned and started to walk away, "Just see what
happens tomorrow, and then you may understand, boy." Without another word,
the two masters retreated into the First Master's room.
Cassius frowned at Vonliege's words. He could not understand them. Vonliege
was not surprised by the news and seemed to know what was coming. The wound
stabbed fresh pain as Cassius moved, and he rested against the coarse wall
until it eased. He began to move carefully back down the corridor, seeking
his room and bed.
Nobody stopped him, but the shadows from the torches took on menacing forms.
Thinking was almost impossible, but the blood loss had slowed. He collapsed
on his bed and felt below it for his old clothes. Weak fingers tore strips
from the cloth, and he made a makeshift bandage to keep the wound in his
side closed. The red of pain fused with the grey of sleep, and Cassius
dozed fitfully. Janus' words haunted him. Maybe 'soon enough' had not
The boy leaned back against the crate and tried to figure out what was
happening. Someone was dead, and it may have been his guide. He was given
little time to think, though, as a cold blade was pressed against his
throat. A voice that stank of ale spoke into his ear. "You must be here for
Cassius woke the next day feeling a dull aching pain in his side. Silence
always greeted him in the morning, but today something felt electric. When
he glanced at the others, no one would meet his gaze. Today would be a long
* * *
Cassius winced. The other novice collapsed with a flowing wound. Imrah
"You were fortunate to see my backstab in action on our inattentive novice
here. Normally it wouldn't be this easy." A chiming resonated in the cramped
passages, drawing everyone's attention. Imrah said, "The moment of truth.
Follow me. We will see off our scouts."
Cassius couldn't help but notice an attitude that verged on paranoia being
shown by the masters of crime. They left nothing to risk, even with an
entire congregation of thieves at the top. This raised the issue of his
presence in Cassius's mind. Did he still consider escape, or more the point,
had he ever? His thoughts betrayed him when he realized that he hadn't ever
seriously considered it.
Reluctantly, Cassius pushed aside the treacherous thoughts, as he continued
behind Imrah down the path, drinking in the details. The party reached the
center of the cross of passages. In a tone that sounded almost labored,
their leader told them, "Be wary of falling. I can assure you that no one
will try save you. Now move."
With his mind on other things, the ladders that had caused Cassius so much
pain previously now seemed trivial. Cassius mused that Imrah had been right;
no one tried to save the one person who fell. He heaved himself onto the top
landing, ignoring the scream from below, and winced as his wound moved
beneath the bandage. If he had thought Vonliege's quarters cramped, this was
Thieves were lined along the walls, all the way back into the corridor. The
room looked normal for a house, or would have been in its normal state, as
Cassius spied furniture pushed against the far left wall. Two familiar faces
in the outer doorway turned to greet the new arrivals with a glance, but one
of the triumvirate was missing - Nephalis, the other master. Leaving the
novices to stand Imrah wandered off, and when Cassius's eyes followed the
master's path, all he saw was a sea of black. Cassius gave up looking for
Cassius was shocked when Vonliege started speaking as a politician would,
with his voice resonating to reach the very far back thieves. "You are
fortunate." He turned to look at the novices, "The two scouts who were
chosen are from the Gauntlet, which each novice is required to face at one
point. This means that, temporarily until our Gauntlet members are replaced,
testing will be postponed." Cassius heard several audible sighs nearby.
The Spider took over, "We have taken some preparations for our scouts, and
when the Viper reveals himself we can commence with sending them on their
way." The Spider's voice hinted at irritation, yet Cassius didn't understand
what the Third Master meant. Did they expect violence, and was he right
about Nephalis's ambitions?
Vonliege cocked his head as if hearing some unknown sound. The Spider caught
on and backed away from him, just as Nephalis lunged toward Vonliege from
Laughing, Vonliege dodged nimbly to the right, "At last you show yourself.
Good. We can denounce you as a weak fighter again and get on with the
The novices, noticing everyone else was retreating a distance, did the same.
Taking a more careful poise, Nephalis recovered from his attack by backing
"We all know you aren't as sharp as you used to be First Master, I will show
everyone what they refuse to acknowledge." He circled the leader of the den
Vonliege smiled and inclined his head, mirroring Nephalis' stance. "Show
Following up his challenge, the Viper charged and collided with Vonliege.
The First Master narrowly parried the Viper's blade with his own and tried
to finish him by slashing out.
He wasn't fast enough, and Nephalis easily dodged the strike. Nephalis
taunted the First Master, "You are slower. Normally you would close faster
than that. Maybe you can't hit me?" He laughed and danced out of Vonliege's
Cassius tensed. It didn't look good for the First Master, yet when Cassius
looked at him, Vonliege's face was creased and he appeared to be focused.
Nephalis advanced again sensing weakness, but his blade only met air. He
cried out in rage and faced the passive face of the First Master.
"Neither can you," Vonliege spat.
Nephalis scowled and started to circle again. Vonliege's statement showed
true as Nephalis didn't get close to the First Master again, as if he was
always moving one step before his opponent. Frustration showed on Nephalis's
"Don't run, fight me!"
Cassius had not been brought up with any training in weapons, and had
learned only a little in his time here, but even he could see that Vonliege
was playing with Nephalis. Every move was designed to feint and display
Nephalis ducked in an attempt to trip Vonliege but overbalanced, and while
he was regaining his balance he left himself wide open. In a blur of
movement, the First Master had his dagger under Nephalis's throat.
"Very well. Nothing changes," Nephalis said.
Vonliege let his victim go. Cassius smiled as the feeling of elation filled
him at Vonliege's victory. Then it struck him, after looking around, that
the other thieves and novices appeared either pleased or depressed at the
fight, yet none showed surprise. How could that be? Two of the leaders had
fought each other, almost to the death. That couldn't be normal. Cassius was
unable to follow the rest of the meeting as he was lost in confusion.
Questions echoed through his mind; why did that fight happen, and why did
everyone think it normal?
Eventually, Cassius noticed that two discretely clad figures could be seen
riding away from the shack and that the word 'dismissed' had been said.
Thieves were flowing back into their positions in much the same order as the
last meeting, and he followed suit.
As Cassius was entering the novice quarters, an unfamiliar voice called out,
"You! Cassius, I think you're called. I need a word with you."
Cassius frowned, with surprise registering on his face and those around him.
The novice followed the direction of the voice into a side room, and from
the stoic, but formal room, realized it must be the Watcher's post.
Large folds of black fabric concealed the bulk of the Watcher, heightening
his impact. The man towered over the novice. A benign look covered his
rough-hewn bearded face. "You look more vexed than most novices. What is the
Everything Cassius had heard about the Watcher shattered from that one
sentence. Thoughts came unbidden, 'No one here shows compassion or even
empathy, this has to be an act.' At the same time Cassius was relieved and
decided to play along. He struggled to relay the confusion and turmoil he
felt and finally managed to reply, "Um, at the meeting Nephalis attacked
Vonliege, and no one seemed surprised. Why is that?"
The Watcher nodded. His reply belayed no doubts. "Regrettably, unlike most
novices, you were not told of the power struggle that is Crime Underground."
The huge man frowned. "Do you want to hear me out or not?" Cassius nodded
quickly. The Watcher continued, "Yes, it is a power struggle. At least two
of the masters must be in competition to keep this place on edge and secure,
at least in the leadership's view. Vonliege is the first master because he
is recognized as the best fighter and has never been bested. For tradition,
and perhaps ambition, Nephalis still tries to beat Vonliege and become first
master, but most know better."
A frown still creased Cassius's brow, "Why bother? Wouldn't be easier to
just have constant sentries?"
The Watcher laughed. "Have you seen the three masters' pitiful sentry,
Morsaelin? He can't guard the masters, so what hope do we have with others?
Even our other sentries fail to stop adventurers getting in. No, this is the
only way." Cassius was about to open his mouth to speak, but the Watcher
silenced him, "Tell no one of what I told you. They know it already, and you
will only look foolish." With that, he departed to the ladder and his vigil
of guarding the novices.
Cassius's brow furrowed in thought, the Watcher's revelation had explained a
lot. However, Cassius couldn't help but feel irritated at the unnecessary
complexity of their security. Most adventurers Cassius had met in Trellor
stayed well away from Crime's suspected location. The three Masters were far
too cautious. Suddenly, the novice's face lit up as he laughed softly, and
thought 'Even if it is extreme, the power struggle makes life interesting.'
* * *
The boy was given two options: join the victorious thief or die because of
his knowledge. His merchant's instincts drove him to say join the thief.
Honor was different among merchants, and no one would begrudge his decision.
Nodding, the thief said, "Wise choice. Now follow me, and we will begin your
training at our hideout."
Life resumed for the novices, with the mocking from Nephalis and his
apprentice that went with their training. Events seemed to calm down, at
least to Cassius's senses. To his relief, Nephalis appeared to have lost
some of his ambitions, and Vonliege was accepted as the First Master without
dissent. Cassius felt it in his bones. In time, no matter what happened, the
power struggle would resume.
After much thinking in between his exhausting training, not helped by the
still aching wound, it finally dawned on Cassius that he had no other
options. His father would never find him. Perhaps he had already given up?
The high expectations were gone and had been replaced by lower, criminal
expectations. This did not trouble him. More importantly, he had learned
that if he did escape he would be hunted down. The three masters didn't
allow their secrets to be passed on. The constant threats still echoed
through his thoughts.
The foundation had been laid, and Cassius slowly lost his previous
resistance to immorality. The months dragged into years, and Cassius was
slowly pushed further into the dark arts of being a thief. He lost any
feelings of remorse, completely devoting himself to his new life of
thievery, eventually all thoughts of escape leaving his mind.
* * *
Cassius's face was a mask of concentration as he narrowly dodged under the
strike of his foe. He continued to circle around to counteract his opponent'
s maneuvers. The man facing him hesitated at this, and Cassius took
advantage, lashing out with his stone blade. The edge nicked Imrah's face,
letting loose a line of red.
Imrah nodded approvingly and staunched his shallow cut. "Very good Cassius.
You're one of a select few novices to actually draw blood from me." The
novice held his gaze without speaking. Imrah continued, "I have told my
master of your progress and we believe we may have an opening for you as an
apprentice in our new venture." Reacting coolly like he had been taught
"Who would I be apprenticed to?" the novice asked, his old curiosity getting
the better of him.
Imrah smiled with a maniacal gleam in his eyes, "Curious aren't you?" He
laughed to himself. "Well you're still alive, that says something about you.
Quite a while ago, there were two thieves that were sent to Trellor. You
were there, so you should remember." He waited for a response from Cassius,
and receiving none, he continued, "Things have worked out better than we had
hoped in Trellor, and we are establishing a solid base there, which means
that another graduated thief is to be sent to Trellor, along with three
"How does this concern me?" the novice returned.
"Wait until I am finished! In any case, we are going to start a crime
network in Trellor to complement this one. It will have three new masters.
Vonliege nominated you over the other novices to be the apprentice to
Shaelin, one of the new masters - against the will of my master I might
add." For a moment Imrah changed completely and scowled, before regaining
control of himself. In a dry voice he continued, "Will you accept this
Surprised, Cassius struggled to respond for an instant before regaining a
formal tone, "Yes. Yes I do." The change in Imrah set Cassius on edge - the
struggle between Vonliege and Nephalis had not interfered in his life until
"Good. The three masters will be pleased to hear you accept and have
permitted you to waive the standard gauntlet testing. On the morrow, you
will depart with the others for Trellor. Be ready by then. You know the
consequences." Cassius nodded and left silently.
His sleep was delayed as unvoiced emotions came unbidden to his anxious
mind. The promotion, and moving back to Trellor, was so unexpected yet
welcome. Cassius tried to remember what Trellor was like, but couldn't in
the way that he wanted. Previously, he had only been a na´ve child and not
as disposed to the dark recesses, but that had changed. It didn't matter,
though - his position depended on what his new master was like. Shae-lin -
he tested the name internally, feeling each syllable. The name sounded
female, but he hadn't seen any female thieves before. A dark, brooding
feeling overcame him. He didn't know what to expect, and that didn't sit
well with him. As if confirming his beliefs, Cassius repeated to himself,
'As long as it's not a power struggle, it will be fine.' With that
confirmed, he felt enough at ease to let the problems slip away. Sleep
Cassius opened his green eyes to darkness and surveyed the room. No flawed
novice stirred. He gathered his few possessions together and gently opened
the door. Fresh torches lined the corridor. He smiled to himself and drifted
over to the torches, using their conflicting light and darkness for cover.
Against all his control, Cassius couldn't help but groan upon seeing the
Watcher waiting at the ladder. For what seemed like hours they stared at
Finally, the hulk of a man smiled. "You're fine. Go now."
Cassius nodded and started up the rungs. Irrationally, he felt betrayed by
the Watcher's knowledge of his departure. The unbidden thought came: 'How
many people know about this?' He hoped wistfully that it was as few people
The dark passages seemed unusually quiet. It occurred to him that maybe
thieves did sleep. What did it matter? He dismissed the silence as trivial
and stalked up the rungs lightly.
It felt so long ago since he was pushed down the ladder by an unknown thief,
and especially now that he was climbing up them for potentially the last
time. The cover house seemed just as still. Maybe he had come too soon.
Several dark shapes entered from outside the doorway.
One spoke. "A thief's best time is at dawn. You were never taught that but
it was the final test. It's good to see you have progressed Cassius, but now
your real life begins."
Cassius stepped into the light to gain a better view of the group. He had to
squint to see, for the sun was rising behind them. Despite the glare, he saw
the three Masters, Imrah, two novices he had seen around, and what appeared
to be three graduated thieves.
Imrah stepped forward, saying, "Now that we're all here, we can commence."
As he spoke, it dawned on Cassius that two of the graduated thieves appeared
travel-weary. They must be the returning scouts of last year.
The plain master, the Viper, spoke out this time and faced each outgoing
thief. "Once you leave here, you will be Crime Underground's
representatives. Accordingly, you must act in the correct manner and remain
secret." He gestured to the Cassius and the other two apprentices to stand
with their new apprentices. Tentatively, Cassius scanned the three new
masters, and his eyes caught on the only woman there. She must be his new
The familiar hiss of the Viper interrupted the Spider's commands, "This
doesn't need to be said, but should any of the apprentices betray their
master's ends, then the apprentice will learn a new meaning for the word
pain. " Smiling in the sadistic way that only he could, Nephalis continued,
"None the less, you will now find out who you will ser..."
"That's enough Viper! I announce that," cut in Vonliege. A muffled laugh
drifted from the third master. Vonliege glared at him indignantly but
continued. The First Master's tone echoed frustration and lack of sleep, but
he managed to sound important and proud. "Rasirc, you are tied to Ordion,
Xeryc you will serve Celdspar, and lastly Cassius you will serve Shaelin.
Now you may move."
Despite all his training, Cassius actually felt anxious. He scorned himself
for lack of control and focused by breathing deep. A soft voice alerted
Cassius to the presence of his new mistress.
"My aren't we tense today, I don't blame you though."
The novice regarded the face that spoke. She was striking, admittedly, but
her rough attire and unkempt face belied underlying steel. Cassius frowned.
Shaelin's complexion was pale, and her eyes held icy blue depths, but this
was a trait typically not found anywhere apart from remote villages. Shaelin
was more than she seemed. A cough sounded from somewhere near, and Cassius
finally noticed he was staring. He smiled weakly and hastily averted his
The woman returned his smile. "Don't disappoint me apprentice and you will
find out what you can only speculate on now."
Cassius dumbly nodded, attempting to show understanding he didn't have. Only
then did he realize they hadn't been dismissed by the three masters, and he
glanced around to no avail. All he could see were the three groups of the
new apprentices and masters clustered at the doorway. He couldn't see the
Three Masters or Imrah anywhere. Two icy blue eyes followed his gaze, and
Shaelin said, "They left you apprentices to our means," as if that was all
he needed to know.
Shaelin looked up at the sky, and as if coming to a conclusion, met the
gazes of the other two full thieves. Her feminine voice addressed the
others, "We need to reach Crime Sanctuary by midday so we had better start
out now. When you get there make sure you enter Trellor one group at a
time." Cassius saw agreement on the other master's faces before they walked
off with their apprentices in tow.
A gloved hand held his arm, "Wait briefly. We need to talk out of earshot."
Shaelin turned to Cassius, her blue eyes regarding his green, "As you may
have been told, we are starting up another Crime Underground under a
different name. Vonliege selected me to be the new First Master of this
place. I will need your aid in making this 'clear' to the novices we shall
take." Sighing wearily, as if in anticipation, she continued, "The Viper
decided to make things interesting by forcing his old apprentice Celdspar on
us. So be on guard or we will have another Crime Underground power
Cassius felt tension flow out of his body. "You noticed that as strange
too?" he asked. "Several years ago, around the time you and the other thief
were sent to Trellor, I felt I was the only one who thought that Vonliege
and Nephalis being at each others throats was unusual. Everyone else seemed,
well, used to it I guess." When Cassius looked, Shaelin's face reflected
interest. Encouraged by this, he continued, "Only too late did I find out
that the power struggle was for security."
His mistress smiled warmly, "That may have been why you were chosen to serve
me, and your knowledge on the matter may serve us well in preventing another
power struggle. Nonetheless, we had better move now or we will never reach
Trellor." Cassius nodded and followed his new mistress out into the light of
dawn as the last taint of opposing darkness disappeared.
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