Medievia Mudslinger

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' t escape.

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 fell asleep.

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 stepped on.

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 the bed.

"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 fast."

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 commanded.

"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 stranger.

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 Janus."

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' even mean?'

* * *

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 had changed.

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, Nephalis.

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 day. Dismissed."

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 doing.

"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 Vonliege."

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 practice area.

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 reassurance.

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 preparations.

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, boy."

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 happened yet.

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 the corpse."

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 day.

* * *

Cassius winced. The other novice collapsed with a flowing wound. Imrah smiled.

"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 much worse.

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 him.

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 the shadows.

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 mission."

The novices, noticing everyone else was retreating a distance, did the same. Taking a more careful poise, Nephalis recovered from his attack by backing away.

"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 of thieves.

Vonliege smiled and inclined his head, mirroring Nephalis' stance. "Show them, then!"

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 reach.

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 face.

"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 superiority.

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 problem?"

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."

"Power struggle?"

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 Cassius nodded.

"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 apprentices."

"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 position?"

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 now.

"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 greeted him.

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 each other.

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 as possible.

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 mistress.

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 gaze.

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 struggle."

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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