Alabaster

Alabaster-5x8-2017-Final

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“Hold up a minute,” wheezed Ersas, planting a meaty hand on Porov’s chest. The fat man’s bald pate was dripping with sweat, Porov noted, though the day didn’t feel particularly hot in his own opinion.

The two men stood in the street just up from the docks, where rows of warehouses lined the wider thoroughfares of this quarter, built for the huge wagons that moved cargo back and forth to the ships in the harbor. This close to the Bay of Ythis, Porov could smell the water and hear the cry of gulls perched on the upper beams of the great sailing ships.

Porov stopped and waited for Ersas to regain his breath. He was acutely aware of how large a favor he was going to owe the big man. The very thought made him uncomfortable.

“I want to make sure you understand, Porov. I’m taking a chance on you here. This man came to me to solve his problem, and I’m bringing him you. If you don’t think you’re up for this job, you better tell me now before we go in there and it’s too late.”

Ersas dropped his huge arm, not having the energy to hold it up any longer than necessary. A moist stain showed where his palm had rested on Porov’s tunic. Porov considered the man’s words. He knew this contract could make or break him—taking it was not without substantial risk. But he no longer felt he had much choice in the matter. Without a new client, he would soon be unable to pay his men. And that would put an end to his business for good.

“I’m sure I can handle this. You can count on me.” He tried to put some confidence in his voice, but it still came out wavering and hesitant.

Ersas stared at Porov, the man’s eyes like two shriveled raisins pushed into the doughy mass of his face.

“Don’t let me down, Porov,” Ersas said slowly, with only a single pause for a gasping breath.

Ersas stepped up to a small door in the wooden wall of a two-story warehouse and pounded his huge fist against the portal. A moment later, Porov heard a bar slide back, the door opened, and a young man covered in white dust stood facing them. He looked at Ersas and Porov, and then motioned them to enter.

Ersas had some difficulty navigating the narrow door—turning sideways didn’t actually reduce his width. He was forced to scrape his back and belly on the wooden frame as he shoved himself in. Porov waited until the man was fully through before stepping inside. The young man closed the door behind him and pushed the wooden bar back across the opening.

“I’m Ota, I work for Voelus.”

Porov shook the man’s hand, but Ersas merely grunted in his direction and looked around.

The warehouse was large, the ceiling at least the height of three men. Porov noted a set of larger double doors at the other end of the building, big enough for his largest wagon. But his eyes were drawn to a white curtain hung between two supports, blocking his view of the artist working on the other side. Lanterns on the far side illuminated the man’s silhouette, and the shape of the object on which he worked–a human shape.

Ota moved around the curtain and spoke to the artist, who put down his tools and stepped around the barrier. Porov was struck initially by how small the man seemed, with dark hair and eyes and a pale complexion. But there was power in this man—Porov could feel it. Porov noted a look of disapproval cross his face as he turned to Ersas and took in the man’s bulk.

“Voelus,” said Ersas, his expression serious. “It’s good to see you again. How is your project coming along?”

Voelus, the master sculptor, the man who counted the nobility of Ythis among his patrons, ignored Ersas’ question and turned to Porov.

“T’is is the man you spoke of?” His accent was faint, a slight clipping of the words as he spoke them. Porov guessed Voelus the Sculptor was originally from the Caladur region of the Empire, or somewhere thereabouts.

Ersas was taken off guard by Voelus’ abrupt manner.

“Em, yes, this is Porov. Porov, this is—”

“He knows who I am, don’t you Porov?”

Porov only nodded, unsure of himself in such company.

“Has Ersas ‘ere told you what I need from you?”

Porov nodded again, and when Voelus frowned at him, he realized he wasn’t making a very good first impression.

“And you have the necessary equipment?”

“Y-yes, sir,” Porov stammered. “My largest wagon has steel axels and iron reinforcements on the underside. The frame is strong enough to hold the weight of your sculptures.”

Voelus nodded once, apparently satisfied with Porov’s answers.

“Good. I should not ‘ave to tell you how careful you must be. There can be no mistakes, no accidents. My previous partner was incautious.”

“I have handled delicate shipments before, sir. I will do whatever is necessary to make sure there are no problems.”

Porov should have stopped there, but his curiosity got the better of him.

“What happened with your last partner? Did you fire him?”

Voelus shared a glance with Ersas and turned back to Porov.

“No, some stranger knifed ‘im in an alley a few nights back. As I said, ‘e was incautious.”

A shiver ran up Porov’s spine. A small part of his mind told him to reconsider, but it was too late. If he tried to back out now, Ersas would have his hide.

“Come see what you will transport, Porov. It is nearly finished.”

Voelus led them back around the curtain and Porov laid eyes on the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, covered in white powder and standing on a white stone block. Long, flowing white hair cascaded down her back. A simple gown hung from her shoulders, accentuating her womanly figure. The woman’s eyes met Porov’s and she gave him the slightest grin, a fleeting thing that sent chills down his spine.

This was obviously the model for the sculptor’s newest work of art, and Porov wondered if the man had the skill to truly capture her beauty. He tore his eyes away from the stunning woman to look around for the sculpture itself, but there was nothing else there, aside from a small bench holding the artist’s tools.

He realized everyone else had gone silent, and Porov glanced at Ersas and Voelus. The two men were watching him, Ersas with his eyes narrowed in a disapproving glare, and Voelus with amusement on his face.

“I think your friend is a lover of art,” joked Voelus. Ersas didn’t reply.

“Art?” repeated Porov, and turned back to the woman. And then, suddenly, his perspective shifted and he realized the sculpture was the woman. Or rather, the other way around—the woman was the sculpture.

But she had smiled at him.

She wasn’t smiling now. Her expression was one of quiet contemplation, her eyes searching for answers beyond her immediate surroundings. Porov looked at her and then back to Voelus.

“She…”

He stopped. What could he say? That he thought the sculpture had been alive? Perhaps that was just the skill of Voelus, to create something so beautiful it appeared almost alive when the light was just so.

“Is something wrong, Porov?” asked Ersas. Porov could hear the warning in the fat man’s voice.

“No, nothing’s wrong. I’ve…just never been this close to a masterpiece before.”

Voelus laughed.

“You flatter me, but I do not mind. It is not quite finished yet—there are imperfections I must remove before you can deliver it for me. Another week, perhaps. This one will present a unique challenge for you. As delicate as it looks, it is still made of marble and weighs even more than Ersas ‘ere.”

Ersas blinked at Voelus but managed to keep himself from frowning at the little man. He knew when it was time to swallow an insult about his weight.

“But as ‘eavy as the sculpture is, it is delicate, after a fashion. You must take great care. The master of House Aldrilach has spent a great deal of money for this one, and waited a whole year for me to finish. If you break it, ‘e will look to take from you much more than ‘e will ‘ave lost. I will also be greatly displeased at seeing all my work come to ruin. Do I make myself clear to you?”

Porov nodded, once more at a loss for words.

“If you ‘ave any questions about preparing my work for transportation, Ota can answer them for you. I must get back to work.”

Voelus turned away from Porov and began to examine the feet of the sculpture. Ersas motioned for them to leave, and Porov followed him to the door. Ota pulled back the bar again.

“Do you need anything from me?” the young man asked Porov.

“I will have a few questions, but I need to check on a few things first. Can I come back tomorrow?”

Ota nodded the affirmative and opened the door for them. Ersas had to squeeze his bulk through the opening once again, and when Porov joined him outside, the large man was in a foul mood.

“Is something wrong?”

Ersas glared at him and for a minute Porov thought the man might take a swing at him. But then he blinked a few times, as if confused, and shook his head.

“No. You did okay in there. But that was the easy part. The hard work is in front of you. Make your plans and come see me if there are any problems. I don’t want any surprises.”

“There won’t be, Ersas.”

The big man looked up and down the street, as if searching for anyone spying on him, and then walked away without another word.

~

“What do you know about Voelus the Sculptor?”

Porov was in the small office that crouched at one end of the yard where he kept his three wagons. Wema sat on a stool across the desk from him, holding the cup of wine in his large hand. Like Ersas, Wema was a big man, but his bulk came from muscle rather than fat. He was the strongest man Porov had ever met.

Wema was also quiet, contemplative, and a good friend. Porov often used Wema as a sympathetic ear when something was bothering him.

“Not very much,” Wema admitted. “Just that he’s a master artisan and he makes sculptures for the nobility. Why?”

Porov dodged the question.

“Have you ever seen any of his work yourself?”

Wema shook his head, but he was obviously curious about the questions. Porov felt he had to give some kind of explanation to his big friend.

“The sculpture he’s working on, the one we’ll deliver to House Aldrilach–I saw it today. It was…beautiful, a woman. She…”

Again, Porov wanted to say she was alive, but that was crazy. It had been a trick of the light, a reflection from the lanterns, nothing more.

“She what?”

“Nothing, she’s just beautiful,” he repeated. “That’s all.”

Porov paused and tried to find a way to approach the topic in a roundabout manner, but there was no easy way to work this into the conversation.

“Do you think Voelus is a sorcerer of some kind?”

Wema had been taking a sip of his wine and nearly choked on it.

“What, you mean one of the Five?” Wema whispered the last. The Five were beings of great power, arcane masters who advised the Emperor himself. They were not a subject one discussed casually.

“No! Just, I don’t know, maybe some kind of power or something.”

“Why would you ask that, Porov? What happened today?”

Porov could see he had bungled this badly. Now Wema was worked up and would question him until he came clean.

“Wema, when I saw that sculpture today it was…too good. I mean, it’s so real that…I just don’t see how that can be natural, no matter how skilled he is. She seemed like she was…alive somehow. There’s something more to Voelus and the woman than I can explain.”

“‘The woman?’ You’re talking about the statue?”

“Yes, Wema! I’m asking you if you think Voelus might have some kind of power!”

Wema shrugged. “I suppose he might. I don’t think the Fi—you know what I’m saying—they don’t like others that have those kinds of powers. Neither does the Church. But it still happens”

Wema was right. If Voelus was some kind of sorcerer, the Five would have done…something…about him by now. Then again, there were others in Ythis who had different kinds of power, like the witch seer who lived in the Warren. They mostly managed to stay under the notice of the sorcerers and priests, and those who did get noticed tended to disappear.

“I’m going back to his workshop tomorrow to speak to his assistant about the job. I think we’ll need to build a wooden frame around the sculpture to keep it steady when we move it.”

Porov drained his cup of wine and pulled himself to his feet before continuing. “I’m going to check the wagons over and then go to sleep. You can finish the bottle if you want.”

Wema shrugged again and picked up the mostly-empty bottle.

“You need a hand?”

“No, I’m good. Drink up and get out of here.”

Wema gave him a small smile as Porov left the office. It reminded him of the smile he had seen on the woman’s face, so quick, so friendly yet vulnerable, and gone in an instant. Had he imagined it? Or was there something special about the sculpture?

Then again, what if there was something special about it? Porov had been hired to do a job, and he would do it to the best of his ability. It was none of his business if the statue could move on its own.

He tried to push it out of his mind, but later, lying on his sleeping pallet, he couldn’t stop thinking about that smile.

~

“Master Voelus is taking a break right now, so we can go look at the sculpture and you can take your measurements if you hurry.”

Ota led Porov around the curtain to the work area. Porov prepared himself for the moment when he would lay eyes on the sculpture again, but he was still taken aback by her beauty once he was standing before her. He stopped and stared.

“You really must hurry, sir. The Master will return shortly, and he will not tolerate too many interruptions to his work. Do not touch the sculpture, though. The dirt on your hands can stain the marble.”

The assistant’s words snapped Porov out of his daze. What little sleep he had gotten had been full of dreams of this woman, full of whispered words he couldn’t remember in the light of day. He had to make sure his exhaustion didn’t impact his work today.

Porov had just pulled out his measuring rope and begun to check the sculpture’s dimensions when Voelus called from a back room.

“Ota!”

Ota looked at Porov and then at a doorway to one side of the work area, unsure of what to do. He grimaced and looked at Porov.

“I’ll be right back. Continue your work, but don’t touch the sculpture!”

Ota hurried through the doorway and around a corner.

Porov leaned down to measure the width of the base upon which the statue rested.

“Please help me.”

A woman’s voice whispered into Porov’s ear as he was crouched at the base of the statue. He lost his balance and fell onto his backside, looking around wildly. The woman was looking down at him, her expression fearful. A single tear ran down from one eye and dripped off her cheek.

Porov scrambled to his feet, but when he looked again, the woman was back in her original pose. There was no wetness on her cheek, nor any sign that she had moved, had spoken to him in the same voice from his dreams.

Ota came out of the back room and saw Porov standing there, dumbfounded.

“What’s wrong?”

The tension in Ota’s voice brought Porov back to the moment. He looked at the assistant and opened his mouth, but then snapped it shut again without speaking. The woman had asked Porov for help. He couldn’t say anything to Ota or surely Voelus would find out. Porov had no illusions about where he would end up if that happened.

“N-nothing. I was crouched over and just got dizzy, that’s all. I didn’t get much sleep last night, and I’m dead on my feet today.”

Ota looked concerned. “Do you need water, or something?”

“No, no, I’m okay. I just need to be more careful bending down like that.”

Voelus stepped around the corner and entered the workshop. He stopped and looked from Porov to Ota and back.

“Porov was just finished,” explained Ota. “He’s leaving now.”

Porov got the hint and grabbed his rope. He nodded to Voelus and let Ota lead him to the door.

“Did you get everything you needed?” asked the assistant in a low voice as Voelus began to work behind the curtain.

“I believe so,” answered Porov. “I-I…yes, I think I did.”

~

Shadows filled the alley behind the warehouse when Porov returned late that night. He crouched at the base of the back wall and waited, listening for any sounds that might indicate he had been spotted or heard. Porov wasn’t used to skulking around like this, and was worried he would make a fatal mistake.

He remembered the man he had replaced, how that man had been knifed in an alley, and he wondered if his predecessor had been right where Porov was now. He knew he should leave, return to his office and try to get some sleep. But she called to him in his sleep, just as he now obsessing over her with every waking thought.

He knew there was a good chance that someone was always in the warehouse—a guard, or perhaps Ota. It seemed unlikely Voelus would leave his sculptures unguarded, no matter how secure the warehouse might seem. Porov expected to be foiled in his attempt to get near the statue again.

But he also figured there was a chance he could find a window or other opening where he could get a glimpse of her. Porov was gambling that, should he be able to see her, she would somehow know it, would find some way to communicate with him. He couldn’t remember what she said to him in his dreams, but he remembered her words from this morning. It was a chance he was willing to take.

Porov carefully crept down the alley looking for any cracks in the warehouse wall, any window that wasn’t completely boarded up. But there was nothing. Checking the two ends of the warehouse brought him no closer to the sculpture. And he knew the hanging curtains around Voelus’ work area would prevent his view of her even if he managed to get a look into the warehouse through the wall that ran along the front.

He looked up and realized his only chance was to get onto the roof and hope there was a skylight that might give him a vantage into the warehouse. But even if there was a skylight, he had no way to reach the roof. He returned to the alley and considered the problem.

Looking up again at the narrow strip of night sky visible between the warehouse and the neighboring building, he realized that if he managed to ascend to the roof of the other building, the alley was narrow enough for him to jump across. Porov quickly moved out of the alley and around the building next door.

It was a similar, though smaller warehouse. On the far side, a set of rickety wooden stairs led up to an office built on the second floor, to overlook the interior of the building. Porov crept up the stairs, wincing at every creak and groan of the wooden slats as he ascended. When he reached the landing he tried to jump up and catch hold of the lip of the roof, but he wasn’t quite tall enough.

How much risk was he willing to take? His heart hammered as he considered climbing up on the railing that separated the landing from the drop to the cobblestones below. One false step and he would plummet to the hard road below, possibly killing himself and forever silencing the whispered voice of the woman he was trying to rescue.

Leaning against the wall, Porov climbed up onto the railing around the landing. He felt the wooden beam shift under his weight, and for a moment he thought the entire section was going to rip away from the wall and send him plunging down to the ground below. But he managed to raise himself up and grab the edge of the roof before the railing could break under his weight.

Pulling himself up onto the roof of the building Porov looked around. There were no skylights on this roof, and he wondered if he was doing all this for nothing. He proceeded across the building to the alley and looked across at the warehouse where the poor woman was being held.

He no longer thought of her as a sculpture. She was alive, and she was trapped in that warehouse. She needed his help to escape from Voelus, and he couldn’t stop himself. He knew he was obsessed, and he was dealing with things well beyond his understanding, but he was forced to help her. He couldn’t imagine going back to his life and pretending he had never seen her smile, had never heard her voice. Without her, his dreams would be empty, shriveled things, devoid of life and meaning.

He couldn’t deliver her to the estate of House Aldrilach, to be trapped there forever as nothing more than a piece of art. She was more than just a decoration for the rich.

Porov moved to the edge of the roof. The gap looked much wider from this vantage point than it had seemed when he was on the ground. He was no longer entirely sure he could jump across. And even if he did, would he make so much noise that everyone in the vicinity would hear him? How loud would his landing sound to someone inside the warehouse?

Porov took several deep breaths, steeling himself for what he knew he was going to do, what he must do. He backed up a fair distance and then bolted forward, toward the gap. At the last second, Porov flung himself into the air. As he did so, he knew he wouldn’t make it—he would plunge down into the alley, crashing into the wall and then the ground.

Porov tripped as his feet hit the roof of the sculptor’s warehouse and he sprawled out, banging his nose on the rough wooden roof. He rolled onto his back and held his face, trying not to cry out in pain while listening for any cries of alarm from below. A minute passed and no sound came to him. He wiped the tears from his eyes as his nose throbbed.

After a few minutes, Porov figured it was safe to move. He looked up and saw a small skylight off to his left. He slowly crawled toward it, trying not to make any more noise. Eventually, he made it to the edge and he held his breath in anticipation of seeing the beautiful woman once more. He raised himself over the lip and looked down.

Iron bars lay across the skylight, preventing anyone from entering the warehouse through this opening. Porov rested his forehead against one of the bars and peered through the gap between.

The huge room below was dimly lit, with only a single, partially-shuttered lantern providing any illumination. The statue was in shadow, but Porov could feel his heart hammering as he made out the shape of her arms, raised toward the roof.

He pulled back and shook his head. Had her arms always been raised that way? He didn’t think so, but he had the most difficult time remembering her original pose. He looked back down and confirmed that the statue’s arms were indeed extended above her head.

A voice broke the silence below as Voelus came out of his private room, followed by a young woman in a simple white dress.

“You have inspired me, my lady, as you can plainly see.”

The woman saw the sculpture and her eyes widened in shock. She covered her mouth with her hands.

“Yes,” continued Voelus. “It’s you. I have created this so that I might capture your beauty and innocence and show it to the world.”

Porov was confused. This young woman didn’t look like the statue at all, at least from what he could see of her at this distance and in this light. Voelus approached the young woman and, placing his hands on her shoulders, kissed her passionately. The woman was hesitant at first, but gave into Voelus’ ardor and kissed him in return. It was obvious she was new to the touch of a man.

Porov watched them as Voelus continued to kiss the woman. And then, when she was breathless and dizzy from his embrace, he undid her dress and pulled it down from her shoulders. Porov’s eyes widened as he saw Voelus lead the now naked woman to stand beside the sculpture. She looked up at the carving and in the shadows Porov could barely make out a beauteous smile on her face.

And then Voelus leaned forward and blew something out of his mouth. It was some kind of dark mist that issued forth and enveloped the young woman’s head. She immediately began to gasp and choke, grabbing her throat before falling to her knees. Voelus stepped back as the woman’s skin began to darken.

Porov couldn’t quite see what was happening, but it appeared as if the woman’s flesh blackened as if she was being burned, and she continued to cough and heave. She looked up at Voelus, who stood a few paces away from her, watching her convulsions. The coughing slowly stopped as the woman gave a strangled gasp and fell silent.

Her body froze in that position, on her knees before Voelus, looking up into his face.

Voelus stepped forward and swiped his hand across the dead woman’s head. Porov almost gasped aloud as he saw a chunk of her face come off in the sculptor’s hand as if she was made of some mixture of mud and ash. Voelus approached the statue and appeared to smear the grotesque paste across the base of the sculpture.

Porov was unable to move, unable to scream, as Voelus took handful after handful of what had been the young woman’s body and covered the entire base of the sculpture with it. When nothing was left of the dead woman, Voelus grabbed a rag and wiped off his hand before dropping the rag on the floor of the workshop.

The sculptor looked up into the face of his newest masterpiece.

“I know what you’re doing, my dear, trying to get help from that man. ‘E must be weak-willed indeed to be open to your charms. Even Ota can resist you, and he is but a boy. But it’s too late for you.”

Voelus stepped up to the sculpture and smiled at her, though there was no humor in it. Porov could see he was taunting the poor creature.

“Tomorrow night is the last one. When I’m done, the good wagoner will ‘ear your voice no more.”

He’s talking about me! thought Porov. He knows she’s trying to get my help!

Fear clenched his guts as he lay there on the roof of the warehouse. Was Voelus planning Porov’s death even now? Or did the artist see him as a victim, a plaything, soon to be cut off from his love, his obsession, with nothing to show for it but fleeting dreams?

The sculptor returned to his private room, leaving Porov to stare disbelievingly at the place where the young woman had died.

Eventually, Porov was able to drag himself away from the skylight and pull himself to his feet. He felt numb all over, and he wasn’t sure he could make the leap back across to the other warehouse. Nevertheless, he couldn’t stay here. He would be found, and surely killed.

No, he must do what he could to save the woman who inhabited the statue. He needed to talk to Wema, to share what he had just seen with someone he could trust. It was too big to keep entirely to himself.

Porov planted his feet and prepared to leap the alley again.

~

“You’re sure you weren’t drunk last night, Porov?”

Porov glared at his friend. “I didn’t have a single drink yesterday!”

Wema raised his eyebrows.

“Or anything else!” he concluded.

“Okay, then. Voelus is a sorcerer…or something. It doesn’t matter, Porov. There’s nothing you can do.”

Porov blinked at Wema, trying to fathom what the other man was saying.

“This is Voelus the sculptor, Porov. He has friends among the nobility. You are nobody. Besides, who would care about some random girl? The Watch won’t investigate unless there’s some profit in it for them.”

“What about the Imperial Guard?” countered Porov.

“They won’t care unless it threatens the Emperor or the nobles. And I don’t think Voelus using the lives of pretty girls to make his statue more beautiful will concern them. If House Aldrilach is happy with the final carving, the Guard will stay out of it.”

There were two other options, but Porov didn’t want to voice them. Wema did it for him.

“Going to the Church would be suicide. They’d take you inside to question you fully, and you would come out changed, if you came out at all.”

Wema lowered his voice to a whisper. “And the Five? Do you really want to gain the attention of the sorcerers of Ythis?”

Porov pondered his options. Wema was right. The only beings who would care about Voelus and his actions were not the kind of help Porov was willing to seek out. If anything happened to him, he’d be unable to save whoever was bound into that sculpture.

And that was just it—he was going to save her. He knew now he couldn’t possibly deliver her into the clutches of House Aldrilach. No, he would have to transport her somewhere safe, where he would have time to communicate with her and find out if she knew how he might free her from the marble.

“Wema, you are my closest friend. My only friend. And I need your help. I’m going to steal the statue.”

Wema didn’t laugh, or scoff, or react in any way. He merely resettled himself on the stool and looked Porov in the eye, waiting.

“I have to try to free her, Wema. I can’t just hand her over to the nobleman. Not now that I know what Voelus is doing. There’s a tortured spirit inside the statue, and I have to free her. But I cannot do it alone.”

Wema sighed. “Yes, Porov, I am your friend. And you’ve learned to listen to me when I give you advice, because I’m good at keeping you out of trouble. So you must listen to me now, and listen carefully to everything I say.”

Porov nodded.

“I cannot let you do this, Porov. I cannot help you, and if you continue down this path, I will try to stop you. Whatever is inside that statue, whatever Voelus is doing in his workshop, you can’t change it. This is Ythis. People like you and me don’t get to be heroes like in the stories. We just get killed—like the last deliveryman who got knifed in an alley somewhere in the city.”

“But—”

“And I know you’d take the risk to yourself to do what you think must be done. But you’d also put me at risk, and the rest of the men who work for you. It won’t be just you who dies if you steal the statue. It’ll be all of us.”

Wema stood up and towered over Porov.

“When the statue is ready, we will all go—including you, Porov—and we will transport it to the grounds of House Aldrilach. And then, if you decide not to do any further business with Voelus, I will support you and make up a story to tell the rest of the men. But you’ve agreed to this delivery, Porov, and I won’t let you back out of it now. The price is too high.”

Wema left the small office and went to work on one of the wagons. Not having any deliveries to make today, Porov continued to sit at his desk, pondering his options, until the sun had passed across the sky and Wema had gone home for the day. He continued to sit and think while dusk settled over the buildings of Ythis.

~

“I need to speak to Voelus!”

Ota didn’t open the door any further. “The master is unable to see anyone right now. Please come back in the morning.”

Ota made to close the door and Porov put his boot into the opening before it could be shut. Ota frowned at him but Porov could see fear in his eyes.

“Tell Voelus I need to speak with him about the women. He’ll want to hear what I have to say.”

Ota leaned his face forward through the opening and spoke in a low voice.

“You don’t want to do this, sir. Whatever you think you know, forget about it. If you—”

Porov’s fist smashed into Ota’s nose, snapping his head back and knocking the man to the floor. Porov kicked the door open and stepped into the warehouse. Ota curled up into a ball and held his face.

Porov had never been a tough man, and he had always been on the receiving end of punishment in the few fistfights from which he had been unable to escape. But this wasn’t the first time he had thrown a punch. From Ota’s reaction, it was the first time the young man had taken one. Porov figured Ota was no longer a threat.

For the first time in his life, Porov felt powerful, in control. He didn’t know what had gotten into him, but he knew he could rescue the woman, and he could do it alone. Porov had always been weak, a target of stronger men. Tonight, Porov was going to be a hero.

Wema had been right—Porov couldn’t just steal the statue and get all his men into trouble. No, Porov had to do this alone, succeed or fail on his own. There was only room for one hero in a story, and something deep within Porov was driving him forward, turning him into the hero he had always wanted to be. He didn’t hesitate to question from where this newfound courage was coming.

As Porov rounded the edge of the curtain, Voelus came striding out of the back room. Porov caught a glimpse of another young woman in the doorway behind him.

“What do you think you’re doing in my workshop?” shouted Voelus. “I won’t tolerate your interference!”

Porov stepped forward and swung at Voelus. He was unprepared when the small man easily blocked Porov’s clumsy punch and jabbed his fingers into Porov’s stomach. Porov’s legs went weak and he dropped to his knees. The breath was knocked out of him and he gasped, trying to refill his lungs.

Voelus leaned down over him. “You have made a grave mistake tonight. I know why you came ‘ere, and perhaps it’s not entirely your fault, but it none of that matters now. Get to your feet, dog.”

Voelus stepped back as Porov pulled himself back onto his feet. He saw the sculptor take a deep breath and knew what was coming. Porov threw himself down and to one side as Voelus blew a cloud of dark mist into the space where Porov’s face had been an instant before.

Porov lunged upward while drawing the knife that hung from his belt. As Voelus turned, Porov drove the blade into the man’s chest. Voelus’ eyes went wide and Porov braced for some kind of sorcerous attack. But the sculptor just sank to his knees in front of Porov. Behind him, the young woman screamed.

“You fool,” Voelus gasped.

“You’ll kill no more women, you bastard. You’ll trap no more spirits in your sculptures.”

Voelus grinned, his teeth red with his blood. “You don’t know what you’ve done. The statue, it was to be a…guardian…for Lord…Aldrilach.”

Voelus fell sideways and rolled onto his back. Porov looked down at him.

“I don’t care. I’ll find a way to free her.”

“You…just…did,” answered Voelus. “My will…was holding it…in place. Without the…last sacrifice…it won’t be…fully bound.”

With a sinking feeling, Porov realized he had missed something important.

Voelus gave a final gasp and died. A breeze blew through the warehouse, carrying with it the stench of blood and feces.

Porov turned to look at the statue. She stood there, beautiful and delicate. And then she smiled at Porov. Her smile was no longer fleeting and vulnerable.

And in her eyes, Porov could see only hunger.

© 2015 Andrew J. Luther

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