By Stirling Edgewood
Chapter 7: Ardor Among Thieves
He stood as a thief in the night, under a dark sky, before a great structure of stone. It was old, immeasurably ancient. Great columns ranked along its façade, and in the middle stood a door. He held in his hand a key. A secret and mysterious key he had purloined from he knew not where. It slid noiselessly into the lock, and the door swung silently open before him. He entered, and saw that he was in an enormous hall, with high, vaulted ceilings. The hall stretched before him, long and longer still, so that he could not see the far end. He looked at his feet, and realized he was but a tiny creature in this huge, hollow place. So tiny indeed, that he would need many steps to cross a single one of the innumerable flagstones that paved its vast floor.
He looked up, and saw that the above him were many balconies. In them stood a multitude. In ranks, clusters, bunches, mobs, and hordes, they filled the balconies. They were endless, as many and more of his kind as had ever lived. And they were cheering. For him. “Go forth!” some called. “May fortune be your constant servant!” shouted others. “A peaceful and harmonious passage!” came the well-wishes of still more. Among them priests and priestesses, monks and nuns, shamans and oracles, prayed and chanted, burned incense, and made sacrifices and offerings in his name.
At the front of the nearest balcony stood his own family, his father and mother, flanked by his brothers and sisters, and those further flanked by grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. They were smiling, waving, cheering. His father held up in his hand a small glowing object, barely visible. “You must carry this ember on your journey,” he said solemnly. And he tossed it to him. He reached out a hand to catch it, but in that hand he held the key. He stretched out his other hand, but that one was grasping a large, heavy book. With no other means to catch the spark, he opened his mouth. It dropped straight down his throat. “No matter!” called his father, “it will be as safe in that place as any other.” Deep inside him, he felt a relentless, distracting, burning. A heat that could not be quenched.
He stared down the hall again, and saw arrayed along its walls wondrous and valuable objects. Rare gems, priceless works of art, ancient tomes. Each object was placed on an elaborate pedestal, or within an ornate frame, or enclosed in a gilt-edged crystal case. Though each tempted him with their beauty and worth, he eschewed them. For he knew, that in the unseen distance, deep within this celestial vault, was the object he had come to seize.
He stepped forward. Each step was despairingly infinitesimal due to his small size. He trod many steps before he even crossed the first flagstone. Yet as he moved forward, an odd sensation overtook him. It was as if with each step, he were growing, expanding, swelling, so that the distance he traversed with each stride was greater and greater, accelerating him toward his goal. As he walked along, he began to realize that his path was waylaid with myriad traps, tricks, and pitfalls. A tripwire here, a trigger there, or a snare elsewhere. But he was small, these were easily seen, and he simply navigated around them.
Yet as he proceeded, he grew larger and larger, each step augmenting his corpus. And although he moved faster, he became more cumbersome. The traps once so easily avoided now required care and deft movement to avoid. From time to time, his evasions were unsuccessful, a dart jabbed into him, a knife sliced, a swinging weight bowled him over. Soon he had grown so large and clumsy, that he set off nearly every device that could hinder or injure him.
Yet still he persevered, through pain and delay, holding the key in one hand, and the book in the other, while the burning deep inside urged him ever onward. Eventually, he grew so large that he could barely pass. The hall, once seemingly vast, was now a cramped tunnel through which he must first duck, then crouch, then crawl, barely squeezing between the walls. As he crawled along, his hand holding the book slipped into an unseen hole. A sudden growl issued from the hole, and a sharp pain shot through him. He retracted his arm, and saw the both hand and book were no longer in his possession.
“No matter,” he said doggedly, “I will persevere.” Yet as he crawled forward, he felt something along the wall, jutting out into the hall, blocking his progress. It was a pedestal. Upon it stood a statue of granite. A woman, sleeping, perhaps a prisoner, as she had chains around her hands, feet, and neck. She was carved with exquisite detail, and quite beautiful. He attempted to maneuver around the pedestal, but only managed to upset it. The statue suddenly came crashing down in front of him. It lay in his path, cold and unmoving. He pushed forward, trying to crawl over this new obstruction, but only managed to press it closer to him. Its surface was bitterly cold. He twisted one way, then another, but could not surmount.
“I have attempted exactly thirty-six different ways to pass,” he said despairingly. “Perhaps number thirty-seven will avail me.”
But it was no use. He only managed to get himself wedged and stuck, unable to move forward, unable to retreat, trapped with the bone-chilling thing pressed to him. He felt the cold enter him, first through his skin, then penetrating his flesh, and finally deep into his bones. He began to shake uncontrollably, his body shivering, muscles painfully tightening, until his brain rattled in his skull. Then a voice called out to him, faintly, weakly. He could not discern whether it came from somewhere far down the hall, ahead or behind, or from some recess of his own mind, or the statue in his embrace. Perhaps it came from all.
“The answer is forty-two.”
It began as an odd feeling, a slight relaxing of the rigid stone. A tiny, almost imperceptible spark of warmth. It slowly spread, like the caress of a gentle hand. First his quaking subsided. As his muscles relaxed, he could feel the ember within begin to combust with renewed vigor, its warmth building, spreading. As the heat radiated out from him, the statue in his grasp began to slowly soften. It was no longer hard stone, but something pliable, supple. Its temperature increased. Its heat radiated into him, stoking the ember within him to flame. His own energy flowed back out, and he could feel its effect on the warming being in his grasp. It grew warmer, warming him even further, warming her further still, each exchange building in intensity, until the two flames within them began to roar in a raging bonfire. The flames poured out of them, threatening to consume them, but the heat, the heat, was so intense, the flames so hypnotic, the incredible miracle of their amplified energies so exquisite, that they could only pull closer, tighter. The growing conflagration became white-hot, searing them both with its overwhelming imperative. They grew closer, and closer, until the flames became unbearable, yet still they pulled together. Suddenly their flames touched together, merging in an excruciating explosion of ecstasy. Then they lay still. As the intense sensations began to drift away, a voice, from nowhere and everywhere at once, whispered into his ear. “Bear the ember. Here.” He felt the fantastic sculpture now come to life shift below him, and he saw, in her hand, was a tiny, pale, blue sphere. Then the dream dissolved, and he drifted into a quiet sleep.