“What have you found?” Rik asked Weasel.
“I said we’d best burn them,” said the Barbarian. “They are wizard’s books. No good can come of them. No good ever came of any book.”
“But?” said Rik. He allowed his tiredness and impatience to show in his voice. He knew this pair. If they had wanted to, they would simply have burned the books. They would not have come to consult with him. Therefore they must think there was something to be gained from this.
“Weasel said they might be treasure. He said that the right people pay well for such books.”
Rik knew in his gut that he had come to one of the cross-roads of his life. These books had belonged to a dark wizard, one who had been up to no good whatsoever down here. If they were what he suspected, they contained forbidden lore, the kind that a man could get burned at the stake for possessing. The mage they had just fought had been no saint. Quite possibly his own knowledge had driven him mad. The best thing to do with the books was to burn them. And yet…
And yet, those books and that knowledge in them represented the gateway to a world he had always wanted to be part of, the world of the sorcerer. Perhaps they contained something that would let him forge a different destiny, that could steer him away from the early death or the poorhouse, or the life of an itinerant limbless beggar that waited many ex-soldiers.
Perhaps there was something in them that could let him better himself, or at least seize some control of his life. A flash of rebelliousness passed through him. He felt the lure of the forbidden.
What if the knowledge in those books was dark, frowned on by society? What had society ever done for him? And more than anything else, he was curious.
He saw the others staring at him. Weasel licked his lips, and fumbled at the hilt of his knife. Rik realised that they were nervous too but for different reasons. They were making an offer which if reported to the wrong people could get them burned at the stake.
He could almost read Weasel’s mind. His life was on the line here in more ways than one. If this pair thought he might report them to the Inquisition, he would not leave this place alive. They were waiting for an answer, one on which his life could well depend.
“He’s right,” said Rik. He paused for a moment, to weigh his next few words, but the Barbarian leapt in eagerly.
“You mean you think we found treasure?”
“I mean we may have found it, if those books are grimoires. There are people who pay well for spell books and such. At least there were in Sorrow.”
Weasel shot the Barbarian an I-told-you-so look.
“How much?” the big man asked. Rik looked around meaningfully, concentrating his gaze on the Lieutenant. This was not the sort of conversation you wanted overheard. The others had known it already. They were speaking in very low tones indeed. All three of them shuffled towards the chamber from which Weasel and the Barbarian had come. It was a small gallery containing a rickety wooden table, a stool and a pallet for sleeping on.
“How much?” the Barbarian repeated.
“Gold,” said Rik.
“Lots of gold?” The Barbarian looked excited.
“I don’t know,” said Rik. He thought of the Old Witch and her web of dubious connections. “It was never my field. I knew someone who dealt in these things sometimes.”
“You would not be trying to put one over on your old comrades now?” asked Weasel with a slight undertone of menace in his voice. Rik shook his head. It was typical of the man, he thought. He was always trying to put one over on the world, so he thought the world was always trying to do the same back.
“Let’s see these books,” Rik said.
There were books, and lots of other stuff besides, scattered about what had obviously been the wizards temporary sanctum in a small gallery just off the main tunnel. Rik counted the books. There were half a dozen of them.
They were small, leather bound, some with flakes of embossing on their sides. He flicked through them. He was certain one was a spell-book. It contained the almost musical notation he remembered from the Old Witch’s books. Another looked like a journal. It contained a maps of what he guessed was this mine. Flicking through it, he could see that if it were correct then the whole complex was much deeper and stranger than anyone had guessed.
Most of the books were in the old tongues. They were annotated in modern Exalted by someone with very bad handwriting. Rik guessed it was the wizard.
Part of him exulted. He had actually found grimoires, although what he could do with them was anybody’s guess. He knew that just looking at them put his soul in peril of Shadow, but he could not help himself. He had always been more than curious about such things and now, perhaps, he had found a gateway to freedom and wealth. At the very least, he knew they had found something that certain curious souls would pay a great deal of money for.
“You were right,” he told Weasel. “These must be worth a fortune to the right people. We only got to find them.”
Rik stuck one of the volumes within his tunic and another couple into his knapsack. He folded up the map and put it inside one of the books. Weasel and the Barbarian began to pack away the rest.
“Not a word about these to anybody,” he said. “Not to anybody. I’ll go over them later and try to make a proper evaluation. If we can find the right buyer we split the money three ways equally.”
“That’s fair,” said the Barbarian. Weasel looked as if he were trying to find some way to haggle about it, but there was only one real angle of attack.
“We found them,” he said.
“I can read them,” said Rik. “Some of them at least. And I know people who might buy them. Who would you rather trust, me or a stranger?” Weasel gave him a hard stare and then grinned.
“Nothing good ever came from reading a book,” said the Barbarian, as if repeating a truth that had been drummed into him very young.
Weasel held up his hand for silence and stalked back the way they had come. He waited and listened for a while and then returned.
“What was that?” Rik asked.
“Nothing. I thought I heard something but there was no one there.”
They all looked nervously down the gallery in the direction the Ultari had vanished in. What if there was more than one of them, Rik wondered?
“Come on, let’s go get the others and get out of here,” he said. Weasel held up a hand.
“Wait,” he said.
“We don’t want anybody to come back down here checking this place,” Weasel said.
“And we don’t want that thing finding its way back up to the surface,” said the Barbarian. Rik was so wrapped up in his own thoughts, he realised he was talking about the Ultari.
“Let’s fire this place,” said Weasel.
“Dangerous,” said Rik. “It might bring the whole mine down on us.”
“No more dangerous than the other thing we are doing,” said Weasel. They were already talking around the subject. Rik thought there was perhaps something stronger that could be done. He had an uncomfortable guilty feeling that someone might already be eavesdropping on them, but when he looked around no one was there.
“That could get us burned as well,” he said. “If one of us peaches to the wrong person…”
“Now who would do that?” said Weasel.
“Not me,” said the Barbarian. “Not on a comrade.”
“Your oath on it? On your soul and hope of rebirth in the Light,” Rik said. It was the strongest oath he could think of, although not one that people who were thinking about dealing in forbidden elder lore really should be swearing by.
“By my soul and hope of rebirth,” said the Barbarian. Weasel paused for a moment. He appeared to be considering things from all angles again. Rik was surprised. The poacher was not a man who he would have expected to be all that bothered by breaking an oath. He seemed to be taking this one seriously though.
“By my soul and hope of rebirth in paradise,” he swore eventually. Both of them looked at Rik. He swore the oath. They set about looking for anything other than the precious papers that would burn. There was plenty of wood and lantern oil. It did not take long for them to pile it around the props in the ceiling that looked weakest. It took them even less time to get them alight. After that it was only a matter of running back and dragging the others clear.
As they made their way upwards, Rik thought about what they had done. He was at once excited and very scared. Lodged against his chest the books felt heavy with the promise of forbidden knowledge. He could barely wait to read them, even though it might mean the damnation of his soul and the ending of his life. He wondered what his companions would do if they knew he intended to read these books before they sold them? He knew now that he could not part with them until he had at least tried.
His fear came from the fact that impulsively they had put their feet on a very dangerous path and had not even considered what tale they would tell when they got to the surface. They would need to get their story straight on the way up, and pray nobody thought enough about what they had done to send for an Inquisitor.
It occurred to him, now that he had time to think about it, that there was no way they would not. Soldiers of the Queen had encountered a dark wizard and an Elder World demon involved in an unholy ritual. It was the sort of thing that would draw Inquisitors the way honey drew flies. Behind him he could smell burning as the flames spread.
He hoped it was not a premonition of the fate that awaited them all.