Invisible and as silent as a church fart, Twilp Farfan slipped through the sparse midday crowds of Sothis's Malhitu Bazaar. Skulking in broad daylight always freaked the halfling out, but if he didn't stir up too much dust or bump into anyone, his passage would go unnoticed. Sothans tended to close up shop and nap in the blazing heat of the day, so there weren't many people about.
All good for me. He paused in the shade of an awning and wiped his face. All except the heat.
Twilp studied the blue-domed cupolas across the square and found the right building. Two burly guards stood beside the beaded doorway of Kepeshka's Antiquities Emporium. Sweat glistened on their ebony skin, their eyelids sagging, but each rested a hand on a khopesh at his belt.
Nobody trusts anyone these days. Of course, that included Twilp. He didn't care who he stole for or from, as long as the gold was yellow. In Sothis, gold was all that mattered, and after the fall of the pyramids, there had been a glut of expensive antiquities on the market, ripe for the picking. The halfling's gaze drifted up to Sothis's looming Black Dome and the recently fallen pyramid beyond. The instant it hit the ground, grave robbers had swarmed like ants over a fallen elephant. The very trinket he was being paid to steal had come from that megalithic monstrosity. Twilp didn't know what was so important about this particular bauble anyway; a dagger was a dagger as far as he was concerned. But gold...
The ground-floor windows were girded with ornate iron latticework, and the sheer walls defied even the deftest climber. Twilp edged around the square and up to the bead-curtained doorway. The guards blinked lazily, half asleep. The burglar eased down to the ground and squirmed quietly beneath the curtain.
Good thing I'm skinny. He rose up inside and scanned the showroom. A woman sat behind a counter, idly polishing a lamp. Twilp grinned. Now for the prize.
Upstairs, he found the merchant's bedroom. Two more guards stood at the door, which gaped to allow the breeze to circulate. They didn't even twitch when he slipped past them. Gauzy curtains billowed, the Black Dome and pyramid looming beyond. Some said everything from the inside of the fallen pyramid was cursed, but Twilp didn't believe it. Gold was the only thing he believed in.
Twilp tore his eyes away from the view, and skulked over to the merchant's bed. Big enough for six, it currently accommodated only three: the merchant, Lorisi Kepeshka, and two comely men, husbands or toys. Sweat glistened on their skin like the luster of precious metal. Like gold... The dagger hung from the headboard above Kepeshka's tousled black hair, worth enough to keep Twilp happy for months.
The halfling examined the serpent hilt and pommel, its fanged head and ruby eyes. Gaudy. As his fingers curled around the scaled hilt, however, the dagger's eyes came alight.
"Hello, little thief."
Twilp jerked his hand away, unsure for a moment if he'd heard the voice with his ears or in his head. His client, Lady Nikiri, hadn't told him it was haunted. Doesn't matter. As he reached again, a bead of sweat fell from his brow and plopped down right between Lorisi Kepeshka's eyes.
She stirred, one hand reaching up to wipe the drop away, her eyes blinking open. She stared right through the invisible burglar for a moment, then looked up to the dagger. She sighed, smiled, and reached for it.
Oh, no you don't! Twilp grabbed for it, and their hands touched the scabbarded weapon at the same instant.
"Well, this should be interesting," the voice said in his mind.
Lorisi Kepeshka's eyes flung wide. "Thief!"
Crap! Twilp jerked the dagger out of her grasp, and the weapon became invisible.
"The dagger! Thief!" Kepeshka's bedmates lurched up, and the door guards burst in, swords drawn.
"Kill her!" the voice said in Twilp's head. "Use me!"
Bugger off! Twilp backed away.
"Someone took the dagger!" Kepeshka vaulted out of bed. "They're invisible! Block the door and sweep the room!"
"Is that any way to talk to someone who can make you a god?" the voice of the dagger asked.
You can hear my thoughts?
"Yes, and read your greedy little soul, Twilp Farfan."
Great. Now shut up; I'm busy! He clipped the dagger to his belt and dashed for the window.
"Wait! Aren't you going to kill her? You really should, you know."
I'm a burglar, not an assassin. Twilp leapt and tore through the gauzy curtains.
"Oh, but her life force can be yours! I can give it to you!"
I don't want it. The burglar hit a canvas awning and slid. Anyone heavier would have torn right through, but Twilp didn't. "But it'll make you powerful, invulnerable, immortal!"
Don't particularly want those either. He flipped off the awning into the street, bowling down a man carrying a basket of flatbread.
"What kind of mortal are you?" The dagger sounded incredulous.
The kind who likes his life the way it is. Now shut up.
"Thief!" Kepeshka screeched from the window, pointing right at him. "Guards! After that thief!"
The two ground-floor guards drew their swords and advanced.
Twilp now understood why Lady Nikiri wanted the dagger. Denied the political power of her elder siblings, married to a lesser house, and now aging and bitter, the lure of power and immortality would be irresistible to her.
I'll settle for gold. Twilp dashed up the street.
"Coward," the dagger chided.
Twilp ignored it and ran.
"There!" one of the guards bellowed.
Twilp glanced back and saw the puffs of dust where his feet touched the street. They'd spotted him.
The burglar dodged under awnings, over, around, and under displays of goods, but they were hot on his heels, their longer legs doubling his best speed.
"Kill them! I'll make you a god!"
And deal with all that religion crap? No thanks! Twilp sprinted past the auction houses and into the Rose Quarter, trying to keep the dust of his passage down, but to no avail.
"There!" The guards were right on him.
Desperate, Twilp dodged into Wimiri's Bathhouse.
Twilp glanced back at his dusty tracks on the otherwise spotless tile floor. Damn!
"Kill them!" the dagger screamed.
Shut up! The halfling dodged through a doorway and skidded to a stop inches before falling into a sunken bath crowded with chatting women sipping cool drinks. The guard chasing him wasn't so dexterous.
The man slammed into Twilp's back, and they both plunged into the bath. Twilp's head cracked the bottom of the shallow pool hard enough to stun him. He thrashed to the surface, women screaming, and a meaty fist closed on the neck of his jerkin.
"Got you, little thief!" The guard lifted him, raising his khopesh.
"Kill him!" the dagger bellowed in his mind. "Use me! It's your only chance!"
For once, Twilp agreed. He had to get free, and the blade hung at his belt. He drew it and stabbed the man's elbow.
Crimson light flooded the bath. The dagger's blade shone like a flaming ruby, pulsing with life as it pierced the guard's arm. The man drew a startled breath, eyes wide, not in pain, but in terror.
Flesh shriveled on the guard's bones, blood, life, and for all Twilp knew, his soul sucked away into the blade...and into Twilp. The dried husk of flesh crumbled, and the halfling hit the water.
The bathers erupted in panic, thrashing to get away from the spreading pall of ashes in the water.
"There, now." The dagger sounded satisfied. "Feel better?"
Twilp did feel better, his pain gone, his head clear, and he fairly bristled with energy. He felt like he could do anything, like he would live forever.
"And you can," the dagger assured him. "Every life you take with me will make you greater."
Twilp thought of it, immortality, power, riches, the helpless bathers fleeing around him, and almost puked. He thrashed out of the water and invoked the magic of his ring again, blinking into invisibility. Sheathing the dagger and snatching up a towel, he slipped out of the bathing room, avoiding the panicked patrons. The voice of the dagger rang in his head, urging him to sheath it in flesh, to drink their lives.
Quelling the temptation to become a god, Twilp crept into another wing of the establishment. Sheltered alcoves, each with a lidded commode, lined a wall beneath narrow windows.
Perfect! Twilp hopped up onto a bench and lifted the lid at his feet.
"What are you doing?"
He thought about what the dagger had promised him, and what someone like Lady Nikiri would do with it. The gold she had promised him suddenly seemed stained with blood.
Twilp drew the dagger.
"What are you doing?!"
"Saving my soul, you filthy piece of crap." Twilp held it over the dark pit.
Twilp released his grip and watched the blade's red glow vanish into the depths. With a wet plop, the crimson light winked out. Hundreds of patrons would bury the weapon deeper. Nobody would ever dig it up.
"Some treasures are better left buried." Twilp clambered up the wall to slip through the narrow window into the fresh air. "And some things are worth more than gold."
Chris A. Jackson