Author's Note: So, I swore, back when I finished The Man With No Name, that I wasn't going to do the whole post-a-story-while-writing-it thing again. No, I would first finish the story, then post it, and so avoid torturing my readers with lengthy delays and myself with the pressure.
Unfortunately, it appears that I work better under pressure. sigh So, yeah. It's been, what, three years? since I finished the Doctor Who/Firefly fic, and I haven't managed to finish anything since. Granted, a lot has been going on in my life-but really nothing that accounts for the utter lack of motivation. So I extend my apologies, dear readers, as I invite you back into the rollercoaster of is-Sara-working-on-it-or-does-she-have-writers-block once again. :) I do hope you'll ride; the results in the past, at least, have turned out rather well.
As ever, I try to write a fic so that anyone, whether they are a devotee of the fandom or not, can read it and make sense of it. This one might be a little harder than some, based as it is on the beloved (by few-but-many, at least) Thief series of games. If you haven't ever played them, do. All three of the games have made it to my Top-Games-Ever list, and I have expended much research and time in making sure the first two will work on my newer computer system.
For those unfamiliar with the Thief 'verse, a quick overview: Dark, steampunk fantasy set in a sprawling location known only as the City to its inhabitants. There are two major philosophical factions: the Hammers, who worship the Builder and are more than a bit rigid in their outlook, and the Pagans, who worship the Trickster and who fall into the creepy-tree-hugger category. The Hammers and the Pagans really don't like each other. There are other factions, of course: the Mages, whose Order originated in a foreign land; the City Watch (who are, I think, badly in need of a Vimes); the nobles, who are more interested in increasing their wealth, advancing their prestige, and playing political games than in the overall welfare of the City; the Baron, who is something of an absentee ruler as the City is embroiled in a more-or-less constant war with a neighboring city-state called Blackbrook. And then, of course, there are the Keepers: shadowy, behind-the-scenes players who value knowledge, who create prophecy, who wield a strange form of magic contained in glyph-writing, and who seek above all else to maintain what they refer to as 'the Balance.' Caught in the middle of all of this is Garrett, the City's greatest thief, who as a child showed abilities for concealment (and for seeing through concealment) that the Keepers valued highly. They took him in and raised him, training him as one of their own-and he was their most promising acolyte. But shortly before his training was complete, Garrett turned his back on the Keepers and struck out on his own, using his Keeper-honed abilities to become a master thief. Unfortunately for Garrett, however, he is and always has been caught in prophecy's coils, and over the last five years (the events of the first three Thief games), he has found himself acting as the City's hidden savior time and again. Now the Keepers are gone-but Garrett still can't escape prophecy...
Chapter One: Regret (Or, How Life Always Kicks You in the Teeth)
Death is but a doorway.
– Inscription carved on an Old Quarter tomb.
For a bar that serves ale with a distinct relation to donkey piss, the Crippled Burrick is popular tonight. There's barely room to breathe, let alone try and enjoy a quiet drink. Although 'enjoy' is probably too strong a word where the Burrick's ale is concerned. It's been more than a fortnight since the night people are calling 'the Statues' Ball,' and they're still gathering in the taverns to discuss it. They're still burying the dead in some parts of the City, too. It's been an eventful month all around: the unexpected sight of statues walking around the city (and killing anyone who got in their way) and the equally amazing appearance of a building, out of thin air, in the City heart nearly overshadowed the abrupt and inexplicable collapse of the Clocktower just a few days before that–an event which, according to the gossips, must be related somehow. They aren't wrong about that part, at least, though the rest of the speculations being aired are wild, ranging from goblins to a Pagan ritual gone wrong to an invasion of ghosts. None are anywhere close to the truth. That's something only a handful of people know. I count myself among them, to my bitter regret.
"Get ya s'more ale, luv?" says a tired voice at my elbow. It's the bar wench, with her haggard face and mousy hair straggling loose from its knot. I nod, and slide my tankard closer to her. She fills it, then casts a disdainful glance over the noisy crowd. "Buncha damn fools," she grumbles. "Talkin' over the same things over 'n over again, as if it'd make a diff'rence. Don't really matter what happened. 'S over and done, and life's still tha same." She hitches a shoulder, then looks down at me. "Right?"
I pull the filled tankard back toward me. "True enough," I lie. Life isn't the same. Not for me, not for the unfortunate victims of the Hag and her statues, not for the entire City, though they don't know it yet. I expect her to leave then, but she lingers. I realize her gaze has dropped to my bare left hand.
"'Ere, now, wha's that?"
That damned mark. I haven't gotten around to investing in a set of gloves yet. I suppose I'm deluding myself that if I just ignore it, it'll go away on its own. Foolish of me, since I'm a man with a few too many identifying marks already. Looks like I'd better stop living in denial and go buy new gloves.
"Why'd you go and have a key tattooed on yer hand?" she asks curiously. "Though it don't quite look like a tattoo, neither...Almost seems ta...glitter, when the light hits it right..."
I meet her gaze blandly, slowly sliding my marked hand out of sight. "It seemed like a good idea at the time," I tell her. Then, nodding toward the far end the bar I add, "I think you're wanted."
She takes the hint, and I decide the time has come to leave. There are too many people here, and too many of them are in a speculating mood tonight. I throw a few coins on the table (even I don't stoop to robbing low-end taverns like the Burrick) and slip out the door.
Outside the cold damp of an autumn night and the ever-present smell of smoke and rust that hangs over the City dispel the warm fug of the tavern. I pull my hood up and tug it closer about my face, though I leave the eyepatch concealing my tell-tale mechanical eye where it is. Too many members of the City Watch have my description these days, and that eye features prominently on the list.
It's full dark by now, and fog is curling clammy tails around the lampposts and buildings. It's the sort of night I relish, a moonless night when folk go to bed early and guards are lulled by boredom. There's a wealthy merchant's home not three blocks from where I stand, a house I know to be lightly guarded this time of year while the master stays at his country estate. My funds are getting low, and I need to eat. I should go to work.
I pause outside the house, staring up at the dark facade and feel...nothing. The thrill that has kept me company on every heist I've ever committed is gone, leaving me cold. My gaze drops from the building to my hand. Even in the shadows the key glyph is visible to me, glimmering faintly with an eldritch light. For more than fifteen years I've evaded the Keeper's call, refusing to play their games willingly, shunning the power of their glyphs and their prophecies. Now I can feel power, like and yet unlike the Keepers', woken within me. Now I'm marked, irrevocably bound to their fate. And I don't even know what that fate is; since the night I faced the Hag, I haven't seen a Keeper in the City. And I've been looking.
I don't want to get involved with them or their damned prophecies. There was a reason I left the Order as soon I was reasonably sure they wouldn't kill me for taking their training and going into business for myself. And yet, somehow, in the past five years I've been dragged right into the middle of events any sensible thief would stay the hell away from. I've always considered myself a sensible thief; apparently, I've been deluding myself, because I didn't run screaming for the nearest ship out of the City five years ago when a strange man named Constantine hired me to steal the Eye. 'Why me?' is a question that occurs to me often, right alongside 'Why do I bother?' I still can't answer the first, and until two weeks ago I would have answered the second with one word: profit. The City's no good to me destroyed, and any thief with half a brain knows that civil chaos is bad for business. I bother because I'm interested in survival, and money. But that isn't the only reason, not anymore. I only wish I knew what those other reasons are.
I'm still keenly interested in survival, however, and I still need money. But the thrill is gone, and I can't explain why. Maybe I'm getting old. Builder knows that, at thirty-four, I've lived far longer than most in my profession. I'm still nimble, still the fastest, still the best–but how much longer will that last? How many years do I have left in me before my joints stiffen and my reflexes slow? Before I'm forced to retire or die young?
All the more argument to pick up the trade again. I need a retirement fund, and badly. I've always had trouble keeping coin in my pocket–especially in these last five years. The smart thing to do would be to hit that townhouse tonight so I can start looking for a better apartment in the morning and still have enough to eat decently for the rest of the month.
Instead, I pull my cloak tightly around me and turn my steps toward home. Mist swirls around my shins and tugs at the edges of my hood, seeping in to caress my face with cold damp fingers. Unanswered questions slosh in my brain; I haven't, alas, drunk enough ale to drown them out. Why have I been marked? The barmaid is right: that's no tattoo on my hand. More like a...a brand. Or something equally unpleasant. I hadn't asked for it to be put there; it had shown up all by itself, the night I raced three steps ahead of Death and the Hag to save the City and my own skin. I think it happened when I set the Eye–that damned artifact that has plagued my life for the last five years–into its place, and faced Gammal down. Something happened then–I'm still not sure what, exactly, other than it was a fairly impressive light show. And she'd been scared as hell of me. Somehow, I don't think that fear was down to my stealth and cunning and glorious reputation alone.
Unfortunately, anyone who could possibly give me an answer–even the vague, half-truthful kind the Keepers love so much–has gone and vanished more thoroughly than I ever dreamed of managing myself. Their compound is emptier than a whore's heart–I know, I checked. While the City Watch and various city council members were down below trying to figure out how to get inside, I slipped in through a more...convenient path and found only empty halls and rooms. Hardly even a dropped coin–though that was probably more to do with me spitefully clearing the place of small valuables earlier in the month than any hasty packing on the Keepers' part.
The really strange thing was that the books were still there, in the Elder Library, in the Lower Libraries, and lying open on the desks in the scribarium. The Keepers love their books. Even I couldn't escape their training without absorbing some of that love myself, though I admit to preferring the sort of books that make me a tidy profit at my fence's. But the really, really strange thing, the thing that still sends chills creeping down my spine, was that every single one of the books I found in the Compound written by the Keepers themselves was blank. The glyphs were gone, vanished from the vellum pages like mist under the morning sun. I hadn't entirely believed what Artemus had said about the Final Glyph until that moment. I still can't believe it's all completely gone. I can do without the Keepers–they don't like me much and the feeling has always been mutual–but at least with their books I might have had a shot at getting some answers for myself. I still need to check the Library in Stonemarket, but I'm not going to hold my breath. The only glyph I've seen around the City these days is the one on my left hand, and unless I chance to find all the missing Keepers drunk in a tavern somewhere, I'm on my own.
Which makes it business as usual, I suppose.
I keep my head low as I turn out of Stonemarket and into Old Quarter, where I have my new, hah, garret apartment. It isn't much more than a hideout I keep for emergencies, a bed and a door and not much else, but even after the Keeper Enforcers stopped trying to assassinate me I hadn't felt much like moving back into the place in South Quarter. Too many thugs knew where I lived, and my landlord there was getting...difficult. Kept trying to raise my rent. Admittedly, this was probably because I kept stealing the money meant for his blackmailer as soon as the man delivered it to the drop, and consequently he was getting strapped for cash. Somehow, though, I can't work up a lot of sympathy for the man.
Unfortunately, moving out means that my current accommodation barely has enough room to turn around in; the tiny room is stacked nearly full with those possessions I'd managed to rescue from the old apartment. I suppose the romantics out there might be disappointed to hear a master thief such as I felt it necessary to break into his own tenement building to steal back his dishes, but I hate having to replace stuff like that. Especially seeing as it survived assassins and thugs and my landlord. Crockery of that sturdy quality isn't easy to find.
Nudging a crate of books aside (the ones too worn, battered, and occasionally too interesting for me to sell), I wrestle the narrow door of the hideout shut and draw the bar. My current home is little more than a forgotten attic room in the top of an Old Quarter building, walled off from the rest of the building sometime in the distant past. Ordinary folks don't spend all that much time on the rooftops, and there are dozens of little holes like this throughout the City, unknown to most. I've had this one set aside since the last time the City Watch found out where I lived. It saved my hide when the Enforcers were after me. Without even moonlight filtering in through the window tonight, however, the place looks indescribably depressing.
I'm not drunk. Which is a shame, because being drunk is the only acceptable excuse for all this maudlin self-pity. I tell myself I'm just tired, still worn out from recent events, and that in a few days I'll be feeling more my old self, ready to get back out there and continue my career as the City's greatest thief.
I almost believe it, too.
The window in my rooftop hideout faces east. This alone is a compelling reason to find new living quarters, since every damn morning I'm woken up at dawn. Some days I'm able to go back to sleep, despite the unaccustomed and persistent light, until the more decent hour of three or four in the afternoon.
This was not one of those days. I try pulling the thin pillow over my head to shut out the light, but it doesn't help. I'd gone to bed too early the night before; I'm not tired enough to ignore the daylight. Normally, I'd stay in and read, but I'm out of food and I haven't eaten since yesterday afternoon. I can already tell it's going to be a bad day.
I try to avoid going out during the day, wanted as I am–though if the Watch did get their hands on me on my rare daytime excursions, they'd probably die of shock. Wouldn't stop them arresting me though: the Watch is by and large incompetent, but not that incompetent. Therefore, I long ago made preparations for going out in the daylight, and it only takes a few minutes to dig out my daytime costume from the crate where it's been doing double duty cushioning my surviving crockery. It's a simple enough ensemble. I generally liberate the clothes from some well-to-do merchant once a season or so: it doesn't do to be seen walking around years out of fashion, after all. Draws attention, in certain parts of the city. Frock coats are in this year; fortunately for me, they're an article of clothing in which I can hide all sorts of goodies. Shirt, waistcoat, and pantaloons leave me feeling awkward and somewhat naked, but I put that down to being mostly unarmed. What passes for my "armor" isn't much more than padding to keep me from destroying knees, elbows, or other bits important to second story work rather than actually being any good against weapons. Once a hat is added to my daytime clothes and an eyepatch covers my mechanical eye I doubt even my best fence would recognize me. Just another ordinary citizen who had an unfortunate accident with a pair of scissors...
The stylized key on the back of my hand catches my eye as I adjust the coat, and I pause to frown at it. I'm a simple soul, so the shirt I wear beneath coat and vest does not have lace cuffs to cover the backs of my hands. I'll just have to keep them tucked in my pockets until I can steal a pair of gloves. Glancing out the window at the brilliant, clear blue sky, I amend 'steal' to 'buy.' I'm good, but I'm not about to push my luck. She's been avoiding me lately; I'd hate to scare her off through sheer idiocy.
Getting out of my hideout is a little tricky. Thankfully, this is Old Quarter, and most folks don't poke their nose into other people's business–even if that business involves clambering off a rooftop in broad daylight. I jump the last several feet, catching myself against a grimy wall.
I can't remember the last time I was out this early. It can't be much past eight o'clock in the morning. Builder, what a dreadful hour. I tug my hat lower, trying not to squint too much in the bright sunshine. There seem to be a lot of people out and about–must be down to the weather. For once, the smog from the factories and foundries seems to have headed elsewhere, and the air is clear. Mostly clear, anyway. Passing a Watch post, I find myself heartily wishing a nice, thick, yellow fog would roll in. But the watchmen are busy ogling a passing whore, and don't give me a second glance. The suit and the eyepatch are doing their job; now if only I can just stop twitching...
Breakfast is easily managed: I snag a roll off a cart while the baker is distracted by a whining group of kids. An apple is acquired in a similar fashion. I pay for the cheese at another stall, since the vendor shrewdly keeps it in chunks too large to cart off easily. Food achieved, I turn my attention elsewhere.
The crowd catches my eye immediately. It isn't a fight: no one is chanting, or cheering combatants on. It's probably a corpse. They aren't exactly unusual in Old Quarter. The nastier type of mugger prefers the narrow, hard-to-escape alleys in this area of the City, and the occasional stray zombie sometimes escapes the Quarantined section to chew on an unwary insomniac.
I'm no more immune to the prospect of an interesting corpse and its accompanying street-theater than any other denizen of the City, and the added temptation of a crowd of distracted people with valuables has me drifting toward the mob's outskirts in no time. A fat man strikes me as particularly promising: the fool has even left his purse strings dangling from his coat pocket.
Generally speaking, a corpse doesn't excite me overmuch, unless it gets up and start chasing me around. (It happens more often than you might think, in this town.) There isn't a body, though, just a mess of blood–a fact which has many of the gawkers expressing their feelings of dissatisfaction. I relieve the fat man of his purse and a handkerchief (silk, worth a few coins) just as the crowd loses interest and begins to break up. Then, as I turn to go myself, something else catches my eye amidst the drying bloodstains: a pattern in the gore, as though the blood-spiller paused to do a little artistic arranging. I pause myself, squinting my real eye at the mess and wishing I dare remove my patch long enough to take a gander with the mechanical eye. It has its handicaps, but it can zoom in to catch very small details. Even without its aid, however, it doesn't take long to make out just what the pattern in the blood is. I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
It's a Keeper glyph.
I don't recognize the meaning of it offhand–though I imagine that since it's written in blood, it's probably not a friendly greeting–but the curves and lines are unmistakably Keeper, or something very, very like it. A fortnight spent combing the City for my elusive associates, and now this turns up right in my own neighborhood.
It can't be a good sign.
I force myself to turn away from the glyph. Standing here gawping will only draw attention, and that's the last thing I ever need. My mind races, though, as I continue on my way toward South Quarter. Is this some kind of personal message? Or something more–something worse? The symbol on my right hand erupts into sudden, fierce itching, but I stomp on the urge to rub it. The itch is only in my head, after all.
But I want answers. If a body was found with the blood, it'll be in the basement of the local Watch House, awaiting either further examination or eventual burial.
Looks like I have some breaking and entering to do, after all.